When the police pull you over or stop you on the street, this is referred to as a “stop.” In order to conduct a stop, the police must have “reasonable suspicion” to believe that you have been involved in the commission of a crime.

If the police go further than stopping you – if they search your car or your person or if they take items from you – this is referred to as a “search and seizure.” A search and seizure can also occur if the police come to your home or business and take property to put into evidence. In order to lawfully conduct a search and seizure, the police must have “probable cause” to believe their efforts will produce evidence of a crime. This “probable cause” standard requires more than the “reasonable suspicion” standard for a stop.

What is “Probable Cause”?

With the central role that “probable cause” plays in determining whether a search and seizure are lawful, you might expect this term to be clearly defined. But, it’s not. In fact, the source of this fundamental protection – the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – does not define it at all. All the Fourth Amendment says is that, “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.” Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has provided some clarity as to what is required; however, as explained by the Legal Information Institute (LII) :

“[T]he Court . . . view[s] probable cause as a ‘practical, non-technical’ standard that calls upon the ‘factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men [. . .] act.’ [However, other [courts] often adopt a broader, more flexible view of probable cause when the alleged offenses are serious.”

The probable cause standard has also been tied to the concept of “reasonableness.” If a search and seizure are reasonable, then they are constitutional. If a search and seizure are unreasonable, then they violate the Fourth Amendment. Still, this leaves much to interpretation, and criminal defendants can often face an uphill battle in proving that the police violated their constitutional rights.

When Do the Police Need a Search Warrant in South Carolina?

In order to provide some level of protection, the Fourth Amendment established the warrant requirement for searches and seizures. Prior to conducting a search and seizure, the police must obtain a warrant from a judge (who will require evidence of probable cause) in most cases. However, there are still circumstances in which the police can conduct warrantless seizures, including when an emergency requires immediate entry into a vehicle or structure or when a suspect consents to a search of his or her car, home, or place of business.

What constitutes a “search”? This term is also not well-defined, though if you feel as though your car, home, or business has been searched, it probably has. What constitutes a “seizure”? If the police take any of your property (or any of someone else’s property that is in your possession), then a seizure has most likely occurred.

What are the Consequences of an Unreasonable Search or Seizure?

An unreasonable search or seizure has two potential consequences: (i) any evidence obtained as a result of the search and seizure may be inadmissible in your criminal case, and (ii) you may have a legal cause of action against the police officer or police department that conducted the unlawful search and seizure.

1. Exclusion of Evidence

The primary effect of an unreasonable search and seizure is that any evidence obtained by unlawful means is inadmissible in court. This is known as the “exclusionary rule.” If the police obtained evidence against you in violation of your Fourth Amendment rights, then this evidence cannot be used against you regardless of how strongly it proves that you committed a crime.

But, this exclusion does not happen automatically. The police are not going to voluntarily admit to an unreasonable search and seizure (most likely, they believed that their actions were lawful), and the judge is not going to know that there is an issue unless you bring it up. As a result, in order to seek to have unlawfully obtained evidence excluded from your trial, it is up to you to assert your Fourth Amendment rights in court at the appropriate time.

Importantly, the exclusionary rule applies not only to evidence obtained during an unlawful search and seizure, but also to any evidence that constitutes “fruit of the poisonous tree.” This means that if evidence secured during an unreasonable search and seizure leads to other evidence, then this other evidence is inadmissible as well.

2. Claim Against the Police

In limited circumstances, an unreasonable search and seizure may also serve as grounds for a civil case against the police. The police are entitled to a protection known as “qualified immunity,” which protects them against liability for mistakes made in the performance of their official duties. However, if an officer’s conduct is “objectively unreasonable,” then the qualified immunity protection does not apply.

When Should You Speak with a Defense Lawyer about a Search and Seizure?

If you have any questions about the reasonableness of a search and seizure or the government’s ability to use evidence against you, you owe it to yourself to speak with a criminal defense attorney. Criminal offenses carry severe penalties in South Carolina; and, if you are facing charges, you need to assert every defense that you have available. Some examples of situations in which a criminal defendant in South Carolina may be entitled to have evidence excluded from his or her trial include:

  • A search and seizure conducted without a warrant
  • A search and seizure that exceed the scope of a warrant
  • A search and seizure conducted pursuant to a warrant issued without probable cause

Speak with a Criminal Defense Attorney in North Charleston for Free

For more information about protecting your legal rights after an arrest in South Carolina, please contact us to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation. To speak with North Charleston criminal defense lawyer Rad Deaton in confidence, please call 843-225-5723 or request an appointment online today.