The United States Constitution includes many protections for citizens, including protection against unreasonable searches and seizures on private property. This 4th Amendment protection ensures that government agencies and employees cannot come onto someone’s private property without “probable cause” to search their home and seize evidence to be used against them. 

The government has the burden of proof that the evidence obtained in a search and seizure was obtained illegally. If police officers engaged in an unlawful search and seizure, it could have serious implications in your criminal case in Philadelphia. Defendants who have been charged with a crime can request the court to suppress evidence obtained by police officers through an illegal search and seizure, which often leads to prosecutors dropping the charges against them.


What Constitutes a Search and Seizure?

When Philadelphia police officers investigate a crime, they collect evidence through various means. Talking to witnesses and inspecting crime scenes for evidence are a few ways police officers gather evidence. They can also obtain evidence by conducting searches and seizures at places they expect evidence to be found. Police officers will often search a suspect’s vehicle, body, personal belongings, home, and place of work or business.


Stop and Frisks

A stop-and-frisk is not considered a search and seizure for the purposes of the 4th Amendment. The Supreme Court has held that police officers can stop and frisk suspects without probable cause in public. However, police officers cannot go beyond a frisk of the suspect’s outer clothing without turning into a search and seizure. When a stop and frisk turns into a search and seizure, the police officer must have probable cause and potentially a warrant to avoid violating the suspect’s constitutional rights.


When are Searches and Seizures Unconstitutional?

According to the Fourth Amendment, police officers can only obtain warrants when there is probable cause that a crime has occurred. As a result, any certain seizure conducted by police officers without a warrant has the potential to be unconstitutional. If a court decides to issue a warrant without the necessary probable cause, the search and seizure can still violate the suspect’s 4th Amendment rights.


Understanding Probable Cause

Police officers cannot conduct a search and seizure without probable cause that a crime has occurred. The term probable cause is not clearly defined, and we must look to case law to see how courts have determined what this term means. Generally, courts throughout the United States have used a reasonableness standard to decide whether probable cause exists in each case. The reasonable standard allows judges to look at the facts on a case-by-case basis to determine if it was reasonable to assume they had probable cause. 

Some courts have been more lenient when finding probable cause when the search and seizure was part of a police investigation into a serious criminal offense. Challenging probable cause can be difficult, but it is not impossible. Many court decisions provide the defense guidance on challenging the reasonableness of warrantless and warranted searches and seizures by Philadelphia police.


Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement

In most cases, a court must issue a warrant based on probable cause that a crime has been committed before police officers can conduct a search and seizure. However, there are some important exceptions to that general rule, including the following:

  • Consent: If a criminal suspect consents to a warrantless search, the police can search their home or vehicle and seize evidence they find without a warrant. For example, if a police officer knocked on a suspect store and asked if it was okay if the officer came in and searched the home. If the suspect says yes, come in, then they can scent it to the search, and a warrant is not necessary.
  • Exigent circumstances: If someone’s life is in danger or the police are in hot pursuit of the criminal suspects, police officers can enter someone’s private property without a warrant. This exception only applies when there is a true emergency.
  • Plain view: When the police can see evidence that criminal activity has taken place in plain sight, they can enter the private property and secure the evidence. For example, if a police officer sees drugs on a suspect’s patio, they can walk up and see the drugs to prevent the suspect from destroying the evidence.
  • Items placed in the garbage: Once a suspect places an item in the garbage on the curb for pickup, it is considered abandoned by its owners. Police officers can search and seize evidence in the garbage without having a warrant.

When any of these exceptions to the general rule apply, police can engage in a warrantless search and seizure. It is even possible that they can conduct a search and seizure without probable cause, and it will not constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment.


Your Rights After an Unconstitutional Search or Seizure

What happens if the Philadelphia police violated your 4th Amendment rights? What rights do you have if they engage in an unlawful search and seizure without probable cause or a warrant? Under the law, any evidence police officers gather from an unconstitutional search or seizure can be excluded from your criminal case. This type of evidence is inadmissible to the court, and prosecutors cannot prove the charges against you. 

To gain protection from this “exclusionary rule” you will need to assert your 4th Amendment rights in court. You will need to prove to the court that the police officers illegally obtained evidence against you. The prosecutor will argue that the evidence should not be excluded, and you will need an experienced lawyer to argue persuasively on your behalf.


Search and Seizure Parameters

There are specific parameters that you will need to follow when you are subject to search and seizure by the police. The specific protection provided varies based on the location of the search and seizure. For example, police officers can search a person’s home and seize evidence when the following conditions are met:

  • Law enforcement has secured a warrant, or the person gives law enforcement consent to engage in the search
  • There is probable cause that the person has committed a crime in exigent circumstances. For example, the police officer may have smelled marijuana or may be concerned that evidence is being destroyed if they do not search the premises
  • There is an arrest, and 
  • Evidence is in plain view


Exigent Circumstances and Other Exceptions

Many police officers will use the phrase ‘exigent circumstances’ as a way to justify searching a person’s home without a warrant. An exigent circumstance means that a police officer must act quickly to preserve evidence of a crime. However, the probable cause requirement is still necessary to support searches based on exigent circumstances. In other words, a law enforcement officer might believe that evidence will be destroyed, but if they do not have probable cause that a crime has been committed, they cannot search the suspect’s property. Other common exceptions to the warrant requirement include border searches, administrative searches, probation searches, and safety checks.


Searches in Your Home or Apartment

Police officers cannot enter your home or apartment without a valid search warrant or without the voluntary consent of you as the owner. Many police officers will try to pressure individuals to let them come in by making it seem like they have a warrant or threatening them. If a law enforcement officer does not have a warrant, do not allow them to search your home. In some cases, a police officer will approach a house, knock on the door, and start talking to whoever opens the door. 

They may try to peek around the individual to see if they find any evidence of a crime in plain sight. If they do, they may claim they have probable cause to enter the home without a warrant. These situations are often called “knock and talk” home entries. Many times these cases come with significant constitutional problems, and it is possible that with the help of an attorney, a court will throw out any evidence gained from these types of inquiries because it was illegally obtained.

Even if a police officer does have a warrant to search your home, the warrant will usually specify which areas they are allowed to search and which items they are allowed to search for. Officers cannot violate the terms of the search warrant. If they find evidence while violating the terms of the search warrant, you can ask the court to dismiss any evidence they gather.


Illegal Searches and Seizures in Vehicles

Under the law, a person’s vehicle does not have as much privacy as their home. Their vehicle can be searched without a warrant pursuant to a traffic stop if there is probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime. During a legal traffic stop, the law enforcement officer has the right to search the driver or any passengers of the vehicle. Even if there is no suspicion that illegal activity has happened other than a traffic violation. Law enforcement also has the right to use a narcotics detection dog regardless of whether they have a suspicion that drugs are present.

It is illegal for law enforcement to briefly stop and question a person unless the law enforcement officer reasonably believes that criminal activity may be happening. Whether or not a further search would be legal depends on the specific circumstances in the case and what happens during the questioning of the suspect. Law enforcement officers can search a vehicle when the search is incident to a lawful arrest. Many times, an officer will inventory the vehicle for personal contents before it is towed. During this inventory, they may uncover evidence. 


When Can a Law Enforcement oFficer Search My Vehicle Without a Warrant or My Consent?

Law enforcement officers are not permitted to search every vehicle they stop for a traffic violation. They will still need to establish probable cause. However, there are some situations in which law enforcement officers can legally search a person’s vehicle without consent or a search warrant. Law enforcement officers must have a reasonable belief that a crime has occurred to search the vehicle. 

Many times, the crime they believe has happened involves driving under the influence or drug possession. A simple traffic violation is not enough to provide probable cause to search a person’s vehicle. There are a few common reasons that allow a police officer to legally search a driver’s vehicle without the consent of the driver or a warrant, including the following:

  • The law enforcement officer reasonably believes the search is necessary for the officer’s safety
  • The officer has probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime in the vehicle, such as illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia in plain sight or an odor of illegal drugs coming from the vehicle
  • Drivers admitted or provided information about what was in their vehicle
  • Statements from reliable witnesses 


What if I Refuse to Give Consent to Police to Search My Vehicle?

There is no legal punishment associated when a driver refuses to give law enforcement consent to search their vehicle. Remember, law enforcement officers do not have an unlimited right to search drivers’ vehicles. Sometimes they will try to bully or threaten a driver into giving them consent to search their vehicle. 

If this is happening to you, it is important that you understand your rights and remain firm. If the law enforcement officer is trying to pressure you into allowing them to search your vehicle, it is a sign that the officer may not have enough probable cause to search the vehicle. Suppose the officer does not have probable cause. In that case, you do not give the officer consent to search your vehicle, and the officer searches it anyway. Any evidence uncovered may be inadmissible against you in court. We recommend reaching out to an attorney as soon as possible to protect your rights.


Consult With a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

Have you been charged with a crime in Philadelphia? Are you concerned that the police officers who investigated the crime violated your constitutional rights? If so, we recommend reaching out to Abramson & Denenberg, P.C. as soon as possible. Our award-winning civil rights and criminal defense lawyers can help you protect yourself against criminal charges. Contact us today to schedule your initial consultation.