The right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures is one of the cornerstones of American civil rights. The founders believed in it so passionately, they included it in the Bill of Rights. The Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures has been expanded through the decades as times have changed and new legal challenges have arisen.
Today, the search and seizure clause protects people from unlawful searches of their person as well as unlawful searches where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. So where exactly do you have a reasonable expectation of privacy? You might have heard this phrase before, but do you really know what it means?
The “reasonable expectation of privacy” is often cited in discussions involving the Fourth Amendment, but the modern doctrine is only about 50 years old. It stems from the U.S. Supreme Court case, Katz v. United States (1967). In Katz, a man had used a pay phone to discuss gambling wagers, not knowing the FBI had placed an eavesdropping device on the outside of the phone booth. The Court ruled that the man had a reasonable expectation that his private conversation was private. As a result, the FBI’s wiretap was an unlawful seizure.
Generally speaking, the police need a warrant to search you or your home. To get a warrant, they need a legitimate reason to perform a search. As with most areas of law, however, there are important exceptions. Here are just a few:
Open fields doctrine – the Supreme Court has ruled that areas of your property visible to the public are fair game when it comes to warrantless searches. There have been many cases involving marijuana plants spotted by police from the road or even from the air. You do, however, have a right to privacy in your home and any “curtilage” surrounding it. Distinguishing between what qualifies as curtilage and what constitutes an “open field” can be a major issue in cases where police obtained evidence from the exterior of a person’s home.
Discarded evidence – if you toss something out the window of your car or drop it as you run, you have no expectation of privacy regarding the item.
Plain view doctrine – law enforcement officials can seize an item without a warrant if it is in plain view and it is immediately apparent that the item is contraband.
Phone calls – you have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to your phone conversations, however, there is no privacy rule that protects the numbers you dial or numbers dialed in.
As the foregoing examples show, privacy is a complex subject. If you believe you have been subjected to an unlawful police search or seizure, it’s important to contact a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Call me at 317-983-5333 for a free consultation.
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