Police officers cannot do whatever they want to enforce the law. The Constitution of the United States gives you numerous rights against arbitrary and unjustified police action, including the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. To protect these rights, the law puts restrictions on the actions of the police, including when they can detain you and when they can conduct a search of your person, property, vehicle, or home.
Anyone who reads the news should know that police officers can—and do—violate these restrictions. Whether an officer violates the law and your rights unintentionally or purposefully, the violation can be highly important to any subsequent criminal case. The following are only some examples of how a Fourth Amendment violations can play a role in your criminal defense.
“Seizure” can refer to the seizure—arrest or detention—of a person, as well as evidence. Generally speaking, police officers must have a properly executed and valid warrant to make an arrest. Without a warrant, there are only certain circumstances under which an officer can arrest you:
- The officer has probable cause (more than a hunch) that you committed or are about to commit a crime
- The officer believes that a warrantless detention is necessary to keep you from fleeing, to protect the public, or to prevent the destruction of evidence
An officer can detain you briefly without an arrest based on reasonable suspicion that you committed a crime, which is a lower standard than probable cause. This generally applies to traffic stops, as the police can pull you over on the reasonable suspicion that you violated the law. This can be even a minor violation, such as not having a front license or the failure to signal. Once stopped, the officer can then arrest you for more serious offenses, such as DUI, based on demonstrable probable cause.
What an officer cannot do is pull you over without reasonable suspicion of a crime. Too often, the police may stop a driver for other reasons, including racial bias, type of car in a certain neighborhood, or because the vehicle was leaving a restaurant or bar. If they make an arrest for DUI or another crime, officers may even fabricate a reason for the initial stop.
Skilled defense attorneys know that the court should drop any charges stemming from an unlawful traffic stop. Proving the officer’s justification for the traffic stop is false, however, can be a difficult matter. Our attorneys know how police officers and prosecutors work and can identify when a traffic stop occurred without necessary reasonable suspicion and in violation of your rights.
When you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, officers cannot lawfully insist on conducting a search hoping to find evidence of a crime. Instead, like an arrest, the police must usually first obtain a valid search warrant. The basis of the warrant must be probable cause that there is evidence of a crime in the place to be searched. The warrant also must specifically describe the areas allowed to be searched, such as a certain bedroom instead of allowing police to search an entire house in some situations.
Also like detentions and arrests, there are exigent circumstances under which police officers may conduct a search without first having to obtain a warrant.
- You consent to the search
- An officer sees evidence of a crime in plain view
- An officer finds or receives abandoned property, which they can then search
- Officers can search an impounded vehicle
- An officer can conduct a search incident to a lawful arrest
- An officer has probable cause to believe that a motor vehicle has contraband or criminal evidence
First, always remember that you do not have to consent to search when an officer requests it. The other two situations most often at issue in criminal defense involve a search incident to arrest and a motor vehicle search.
- Search incident to arrest – An officer can search you and any areas within your immediate control for weapons or anything that may pose a risk of harm. Police cannot first conduct a warrantless search and then arrest you if they find illegal materials.
- Motor vehicle search – Because a car is movable, getting a warrant is not always feasible and risks the destruction of evidence. Therefore, with probable cause, an officer can search the main area of a car for contraband or evidence but not the trunk or locked compartments. An important point is that a traffic stop is not on its own enough to create probable cause.
Unreasonable searches are common in drug and weapons possession cases, especially when police discover the drugs or weapons in a vehicle. If an experienced defense lawyer successfully argues that a search was unlawful, the court should suppress any evidence stemming from that search.
Suppression of evidence can mean the dismissal of your case in many situations. For example, if police found drugs due to an illegal search of your car, the drug evidence is key to the prosecutor’s charges of drug possession. If a judge suppresses the drug evidence, the prosecutor may not have any additional evidence with which to prove possession beyond a reasonable doubt and may decide to drop the charges.
Contact Our DuPage County, Illinois Criminal Defense Lawyers
While having police officers violate your Fourth Amendment rights is never a good experience, such violations can be a powerful tool in defending against your criminal charges. The right defense attorney will always closely examine whether any police actions were unlawful and will know how to stand up for your constitutional rights.
At the law firm of Martin & Kent, L.L.C., we have more than 45 years of collective experience in Illinois criminal courts—both as prosecutors and defense attorneys. We know how to seek the suppression of evidence based on Fourth Amendment violations and how to present any other legal defenses applicable to your case. Even if your charges are not dropped, we will still do everything in our power to prevent a conviction and minimize the consequences you face. We are available to help 24/7, so please never hesitate to call (630) 474-8000 to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney today.