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.


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. 

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