The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. It establishes how reasonable searches are defined, and under what circumstances a law enforcement officer can conduct a search with a warrant and without.
Since things like traffic stops are considered forms of seizure, in order for them to be “reasonable” a police officer must demonstrate that there was reasonable suspicion for pulling a car over.
Further, once a traffic stop is in progress, there must be a probable cause to conduct any type of search of the vehicle. Law enforcement cannot simply ask people to leave their vehicle and search it for no reason. If it can be established that a search happened without a warrant, probable cause, or any other exception to the warrant requirement, any evidence gathered as a result of that unreasonable search will be excluded and is not admissible in court.
That often forms the foundation of the defense for those accused of various charges, such as possession of firearms by a felon and charges for drug possession.
How The 4th Amendment Applies To Traffic Stops
In order for a police officer to legally conduct a traffic stop, there must be a reasonable suspicion. Those reasons can be simple things like a tail light being out, speeding, running red lights, or unusual behavior that seems suspicious.
In the case Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968) the modern standard was established for this. It follows that an officer may make an investigatory stop if that officer “observes unusual conduct which leads him reasonably to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot.”
From there, any search conducted must also be supported by an equally valid – what the 4th Amendment would define as reasonable – suspicion or basis.
Why Pretext Stops Are Not A Defense
In the case State v. Lopez, N.C. App., 723 S.E.2d 164, 168-69 (2012) the defense argued that the police officer used speeding as a pretext to pull the defendant over, and the subsequent drug-related charges were therefore unreasonable. Put plainly, the argument was that the officer clearly wanted to make a drug arrest and simply used the speeding offense as an excuse to begin the stop and conduct a search for something more.
That defense was rejected, as the court maintained that a police officer’s motivation for the stop is irrelevant so long as the reason for the stop was legitimate. In that example, the defendant was legitimately speeding and that constituted a legitimate reason for the officer to make the traffic stop. From there, the officer had probable cause to conduct a search, which resulted in drug charges.
We’ll explore things that constitute valid reasons for such a search next.
Legal Searches And Exceptions.
Similar to reasonable suspicion involved in making a traffic stop, determining the validity of probable cause is based on the “totality of circumstances.”
Exceptions that allow for a warrantless search include:
Consent To Search
If a person being pulled over consents to a search verbally, the officer can then legally search their vehicle or personal property without a warrant and without specific probable cause.
While a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in some circumstances, anything laying out in plain view, such as items on the backseat, on the dashboard, etc. can be used to establish a reasonable search or form the basis for an arrest. As a simple example, if someone was pulled over for speeding and had drugs or something suspicious laying openly on the passenger seat within the officer’s plain view, it can be used as evidence of wrongdoing even when there is no warrant to search the vehicle.
These are urgent circumstances in which a police officer can enter private property or conduct a search without a warrant. These are defined as an emergency situation requiring swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, or to stop the imminent escape of a suspect or destruction of evidence.
Exigent circumstances include situations such as:
- If a police officer is actively in pursuit of a suspect, on foot or by vehicle, the officer can follow that suspect onto private property so as not to lose them.
- If the police officer has reason to believe someone’s life is in danger and/or that a crime is actively being commissioned, the officer can enter and search private property in the attempt to intervene. For instance, if an officer hears strange noises in the trunk of a car they can search the trunk. If an officer hears gunshots or other obvious signs of distress or violence from within a home, then can enter the home in defense of those being threatened.
- Lastly, if the officer has reason to believe a crime is being committed inside a vehicle or other private residence, such as evidence being disposed of, they can enter to prevent the destruction of evidence.
Generally speaking, evidence obtained in violation of the 4th Amendment must be suppressed and cannot be used in court.
The exceptions we highlighted previously are important to understand because they directly play into whether any piece of evidence was legally obtained or not. Often the defense for felony charges begins with excluding evidence that was not properly obtained.
Exploring the full context of the situation is crucial to establish whether searches were reasonable and justified, and to develop a strategy for defense.