Reasonable Under The Circumstances
The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unlawful and arbitrary searches and seizures. However, not every search or seizure conducted by law enforcement requires a lawful search warrant. The reasonable suspicion and probable cause standards for warrantless actions are not definite and are often fashioned from case law. An officer may stop a person or vehicle based upon reasonable suspicion (a low burden of proof) in which a search or seizure ensues. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has upheld cases of warrantless seizures as long as police or government agents complied with the parameters set forth under the Fourth Amendment and the searches were reasonable under the circumstances.
So what is reasonable?
Just as the summaries and decisions about warrantless actions suggest- it is often left up to interpretation by the courts. Nevertheless, there are some standard exceptions understood by law enforcement officials.
1. Felony arrest in a public place. A warrant is not needed for a felony arrest in public if: 1) the police have probable cause to believe a felony was committed and 2) probable cause to believe the suspect committed the crime, or 3) the crime occurred in the officer’s presence.
2. Search incident to lawful arrest. An officer is permitted to search; 1) the suspect’s person, 2) clothing, 3) areas within their immediate control, 4) areas concerning officer safety, 5) to prevent escape and 6) to avert the destruction of evidence. The parameters in which police can act, evolve within the time and circumstances of the incident and are a very limited right. This has been the most controversial of the exceptions- bringing forth many arguments in the courts regarding the scope of a search. Case law has shaped these police procedures over the years.
3. Consent searches. Permission from the owner of the property or the suspect person to be searched can be given to law enforcement. In many instances, this is accomplished through just verbal consent, but it can also be documented on a “Consent To Search Form” or audio recorded for evidentiary purposes. Two additional factors must remain for a consent search to hold up in court: 1) the consent must be voluntary 2) the consent must be free of coercion. Third party individuals who authorize permission for police to search an area or property may invalidate the legalities of that search.
4. Plain view. No warrant is required if officer(s) have a lawful reason to be at the place and time they view contraband or evidence in plain sight.
5. Automobile searches. When a vehicle is pulled over based upon an officer’s reasonable suspicion that a traffic infraction occurred, the vehicle’s interior is usually not searched for just that reason. However, if an arrest of the driver is made, the vehicle’s interior can be searched. This search can extend to the glove box and interior compartments but does not usually include the trunk.
Generally, if an officer believes there is probable cause that there is evidence of a crime in the vehicle, they can search the automobile. Vehicles are mobile and well known for concealing and transporting contraband and evidentuary materials by suspects. Once the vehicle becomes mobile again, the materials may be easily moved or disposed of which can warrant an immediate search by police at the initial contact; albeit having articulable facts to justify it. When a suspect is arrested for drugs, the entire vehicle can be searched. Another variable in this automobile exception clause is law enforcement may search a vehicle if they feel a search is necessary for their protection and safety.
6. Vehicle Inventories. Once a vehicle is impounded to tow, it can be inventoried without a warrant. An inventory sheet or form which lists property and general contents may accompany a tow request; a copy remaining with the vehicle/tow company and the original form filed as a record at the police department. If there is probable cause to believe a vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime beyond these scopes and time warrants, it may be more beneficial for law enforcement to obtain a search warrant in order to conduct a thorough examination of the vehicle.
7. Exigent circumstances. Evidence can be destroyed, moved, or concealed rather quickly and easily. These circumstances can be defined as “exigent” and must tantamount to an emergency condition for police to act without a warrant to secure evidence and prevent the destruction of such. What must be weighed by police and inevitably reviewed by the courts is the totality of the circumstances, reasonableness of the police actions, the progression of events, and the gravity of the offense.
8. Checkpoints. Specific roadside areas targeted at addressing particular problems such as drunk driving have been regarded as acceptable procedure. Checkpoints are considered a brief and lawful seizure in which warrants are not necessary.
The Exclusionary Rule
If any of the law enforcement actions or an arrest by police were unlawful, the evidence obtained during the course of these processes will be excluded from trial and deemed inadmissible. This legal principle is often referred to the “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” and applies when a subject’s rights are violated.
The Good Faith Doctrine
An exception to the Exclusionary Rule can be rendered when law enforcement acted upon good faith that they had legal authority, relied upon a warrant, and seized evidence even if the warrant later is found to be defective. The evidence obtained under these circumstances could then become admissible in a trial.
Burden of Proof
Once a police contact turns into an arrest and/or seizure or property, these actions are documented based upon what events evolved during the course of the incident. Probable cause is a higher standard of proof supported by articulable facts. The onus probandi (burden of proof) lies upon the police and officers should be aware of whether their actions were reasonable under the circumstances. In some arguable cases, the courts review a totality of the circumstances and the reasonableness in which the police pursued a search or seizure without a warrant. In any case, it is imperative that law enforcement act within the scope of the law, taking into account the reasonable police standard test as it applies to procedure, and be mindful of a suspect’s constitutional rights.