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What Are My Fourth Amendment Rights in Vehicle Stop and Drug Possession Cases?

by J.D. Garrett on September 17, 2013

U.S. Constitution Bill of Rights

The law against unreasonable searches and seizures is often cited in criminal defense cases. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits police and other authorities from unreasonable search and seizure, and mandates that warrants to search and seize evidence may not be issued unless there is probable cause for such issuance. A person’s Fourth Amendment rights are very relevant when he or she is stopped in his or her vehicle, and charged with drug possession crimes or other criminal charges after police search the vehicle. It is important for Virginia residents to understand their rights when it comes to a vehicle search and the seizure of drug evidence.

Why are Fourth Amendment Rights Important?

When a person is facing a conviction on a drug possession charge, he or she may wonder why search and seizure laws really matter. After all, the police have already taken the evidence.  The answer is that under the Exclusionary Rule evidence that is obtained by law enforcement in violation of the Fourth Amendment is excluded from being presented at trial. The bottom line is, even if a person is charged with possession of methamphetamine, and the police have seized the drugs from the person’s car or home, if the search and seizure was unlawful, the methamphetamine may be excluded from being presented at trial. Evidence of that methamphetamine would likely be a crucial element of the prosecution’s case against the defendant. Therefore, if the prosecution is unable to present the methamphetamine, the defendant may be found not guilty at trial. Additionally, the defendant’s defense attorney may be able to successfully negotiate the charges with the prosecutor in the absence of the evidence.

How do Fourth Amendment Rights Impact a Criminal Case?

At the outset, it is important to note that the Fourth Amendment only protects searches and seizures that are conducted by the state, such as by the police. If a friend or family member searches a person’s room, finds drugs and takes them to the police, the person’s Fourth Amendment rights probably have not been violated. Therefore, the prosecutor would probably be able to use the drugs as evidence at trial.

The Supreme Court established the general rule regarding privacy and search and seizure in Katz v. U.S. In that case, the Supreme Court held that the government may not conduct a search and seizure without a warrant in a place where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. The strongest example of a place where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy is in his or her own home. With very few exceptions, police may not search a person’s home and seize property without a warrant, or without the person’s consent.

A vehicle stop may lead to a search of the vehicle, the seizure of drugs, and drug possession charges against the vehicle’s owner. In these cases, there are several ways that a seasoned defense attorney may argue that the search and seizure violated the charged person’s Fourth Amendment rights. For example, under Whren v. U.S., police may stop a vehicle for a minor traffic infraction (such as a broken taillight) as a pretext for investigating that vehicle, if the vehicle did, in fact,  commit the underlying infraction. Once the police have stopped the vehicle, they may argue that drugs were in plain view, and therefore they did not need a warrant to search the vehicle in order to seize the drugs. If there was no underlying reason to stop the vehicle in the first place, the evidence may be suppressed.

A police search of a person’s vehicle can be a nerve-wracking experience. If the police search a vehicle and find drugs, it can be the first step to a felony record with penalties and consequences for the rest of the person’s life. Search and seizure laws are complex and require skill and experience to fully understand. If you have been charged with violating criminal laws, you should immediately seek out the assistance of an experienced attorney. An experienced attorney can review your case to see if your constitutional rights have been violated, and can defend your case in court. Contact Garrett Law Group, PLC, today for a confidential consultation.

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