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How the 4th Amendment prevents random police searches

The authors of the Bill of Rights understood that a society cannot be free if the police were allowed to conduct random searches of everyone and anyone. That is why they included the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens’ right not to have their bodies, homes and property subjected to “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Today, the “search and seizure” clause applies both to police seizing a person, such as during a traffic stop or arrest, and to locations where individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy. If police fail to follow proper procedure under the Fourth Amendment, any resulting arrest or seizure of personal property is illegal, and cannot result in a criminal conviction in most cases.

With a few exceptions, police are forbidden to search or seize an individual or the individual’s property without:

  • A valid search warrant
  • A valid arrest warrant, or
  • A belief, based on facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge, that would lead a reasonable person to believe a crime has been, is being, or is about to be committed. (Known as “probable cause.”)

Places where individuals are considered to have a reasonable expectation of privacy include their home, place of business, hotel room, luggage or purse, clothing, vehicle and person, among others. Even when a person is in a place with no reasonable expectation of privacy, he or she usually still has the right not to be subject to arrest, detention or search without one of the three things listed above being present.

This legal right often is a factor in drug possession cases. For example, sometimes police conduct an illegal search of an individual’s car, and arrest the person based on drugs they allegedly find. However, the judge is likely to disallow the evidence seized from the car, due to the Fourth Amendment violation.

It is vital to our system that the judge does so, in order to protect the integrity of the Fourth Amendment.

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