Fourth Amendment Searches and Seizures in Contemporary America
The conviction of a client charged with murder is threatened by evidence the prosecution holds. There are indications that this evidence was obtained unconstitutionally. Presumably, the exclusionary rule would be the primary vehicle for moving to have this evidence excluded. If the search and seizure was conducted without a warrant and not incident to an arrest, vehicle stop, or hot pursuit, then there is a good chance the evidence can be prevented from being presented to a jury. Any evidence obtained as a result of an illegal warrantless search would also be excluded under the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine. If there was a problem with the probable cause determination or how the items searched for and seized were described in the warrant, then getting the evidence excluded will be much harder if the police can show they acted in good faith. Predicting the admissibility of evidence obtained incident to an arrest for an unrelated charge is much harder, since case law for this type of situation is filled with contradictory decisions. If the murder charge is federal in nature, then Section 213 of the PATRIOT Act authorizing clandestine searches and seizures applies. If no warrant was issued or a violation of the seven day notification deadline occurred, then this may be grounds for moving to have evidence so obtained excluded.
Protection against arbitrary search and seizure by the state is provided by the Fourth Amendment, which states that citizens have a right "… to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, and against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
The Fourth Amendment thus requires that (1) a warrant be obtained prior to searching and seizing personal property, (2) a probable cause determination be made prior to issuing the warrant, and that the persons and objects to be searched or seized are described in the warrant. Although there are many exceptions to these warrant requirements, these represent the primary determining factors for the admissibility of evidence collected by the state through searches and seizures.
The U.S. Supreme Court has chosen to enforce Fourth Amendment rights in a limited way by providing guidelines that govern the admissibility of evidence during federal and state criminal proceedings. These guidelines have come to be called the "Exclusionary Rule."
Old common law judged the admissibility of evidence based on its value, rather than by the method used to obtain it. The Fourth Amendment therefore represented a dramatic departure from legal tradition by stating that the privacy of citizens was at least as important as the needs of the state to invade that privacy. Providing a method for enforcing these rights required another 100 years after the Fourth Amendment was made law. In Boyd v. United States (116 U.S. 616; 1886) the Supreme Court first suggested that excluding evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment could be a way to enforce the Amendment, and 28 years later codified this sentiment in Weeks v. United States (232 U.S. 383; 1914) in what has become known as the "Exclusionary Rule" (Stephens and Glenn, 2006, p. 3).
Enforcement of the exclusionary rule in state courts finally came with the Supreme Court's decision in Mapp v. Ohio (367 U.S. 643; 1961). Justice Clark, in writing the majority opinion held that "… all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution is, by that same authority, inadmissible in a state court."
Determining whether an applicant for a search warrant has sufficient probable cause depends on the totality of the circumstances. Any indication that the judge or magistrate that issued the warrant was acting as a rubber stamp for the police would undermine the legality of the warrant. When a confidential informant is the source of information, then it is the duty of the judge or magistrate issuing the warrant to ensure the information so provided passes the Aguilar-Spinelli two pronged test: (1) why should I believe him and (2) does the information seem credible based on its content (Acker and Brody, 2004, pp. 156-157). If a confidential informant played an important role in leading the police to search our client's home and personal vehicle, then a close examination of the probable cause determination is warranted.
The Fourth Amendment explicitly states that the location and objects of interest should be described in the warrant. This limits the scope of the search and prevents general warrants from being issued. The warrant should be examined for any weaknesses regarding the particularity requirement under the Fourth Amendment.
Scope of the Exclusionary Rule
In several decisions since Mapp v. Ohio the Supreme Court has limited the scope of the exclusionary rule as a deterrent, rather than a right provided for the accused. Should application of the exclusionary rule not provide a deterrent against unlawful searches, then any application would probably not be upheld by the Supreme Court. For example, unlawfully obtained evidence can be admitted into court proceedings to impeach the defendant's testimony (Stewart, 2000, p. 385).
Fruit of the Poisonous Tree
If it can be shown that the warrant was defective, and/or the police acted unlawfully, then any evidence so obtained may be inadmissible. If evidence so obtained led to searches for and seizures of additional evidence, even with a valid warrant, then this would also be inadmissible as the fruit of the poisonous tree (Acker and Brody, 2004, pp. 96-98).
Good Faith Exception
Although a warrant should be issued only upon probable cause and describe the particular objects to be searched for and where, the Supreme Court has provided an exception for police acting in good faith with a warrant that later proves to be defective through no fault of their own (Stephens and Glenn, 2006, p. 169). This suggests that even if the warrant used to search our client's property was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, the good faith exception would allow the evidence to be admitted if it can be shown that the police were unaware that the warrant was defective. The value of examining a defective warrant would therefore be diminished if the fault lay with the judge or magistrate who issued it.
Relevance of Exclusionary Rule for our Client
Unconstitutionally-seized evidence can be excluded under the exclusionary rule for a variety of reasons. If this evidence led to additional seizures of evidence, it too can be excluded under the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine. If the bulk of the prosecution's case relies on such evidence, then there is a chance that the judge will dismiss the case for lack of evidence. If our client takes the stand and commits perjury and the excluded evidence can impeach this testimony, then the excluded evidence can be introduced by the prosecution. If there is a chance of this occurring then it may be best to keep our client off the stand. What follows is a discussion of the numerous exceptions to the exclusionary rule when a warrantless search and seizure is justified, and under what circumstances Section 213 of the PATRIOT Act applies.
Exceptions to the Exclusionary Rule
Over the decades since Mapp v. Ohio a number of exceptions to the exclusionary rule have been decided by the courts. The following are potentially relevant to our client's situation.
If our client gave consent to the police to conduct a search, and this consent was given voluntarily with full knowledge of the right to refuse a search (Acker and Brody, 2004, p. 182), then the prosecution will probably be successful in getting their evidence admitted and presented to the jury. On the other hand, if it can be shown that the search and seizure was conducted without a warrant, or informed consent free of coercion, then this could be grounds for moving to have the evidence declared inadmissible.
Inherent Mobility of Automobiles
The protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment do not apply uniformly to motorized vehicles because the "inherent mobility" of transportation presents a unique challenge to law enforcement (Acker and Brody, 2004, p. 200). For example, if the police have probable cause to search a vehicle and then leave to obtain a warrant, the vehicle could be gone by the time they returned. Personal vehicles are also viewed by the courts as having a "diminished expectation of privacy" due to the extensive government licensing and regulations that renders them susceptible to inspection for any number of reasons and the public nature of highways and streets.
The fruits of warrantless vehicle searches are therefore admissible if probable cause existed prior to the search (Acker and Brody, 2004, pp. 208-209). With probable cause the police can conduct a warrantless search of an automobile and this authority extends to all packages and containers that may be stored…