When is a Search or Seizure Unlawful?

Criminal defense lawyers play an important role in the system of checks and balances that helps ensure our justice system treats all individuals fairly, and that they are not subjected to unlawful treatment that violates their Constitutional rights. As part of this process, it is important for any defense strategy to entail a meticulous evaluation of how law enforcement officers conducted themselves when stopping, detaining, searching, and arresting individuals suspected of being involved in a crime.

At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys leverage decades of collective experience to provide the comprehensive support and representation clients need to protect their rights. This includes assessing arrests to ensure they were lawful, and that law enforcement officers did not violate your rights. Should it be discovered that a stop, search, or arrest was unlawful, cases can be changed drastically. That’s because an unlawful search and seizure can result in key evidence being thrown out of court and, in some cases, having a case dismissed.

Understanding Your Rights

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides you with the right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. This Constitutional right is one of the most powerful rights you have in the criminal justice system, and it is designed to protect you from unreasonable intrusion by the government into your personal life. Because you have this right, law enforcement officers must be careful not to violate them, and must adhere to special rules and procedures when making contact with you, searching you or your property, and arresting you under suspicion of a crime.

Because you have rights protecting you against unlawful search and seizure, it is important to understand them – and to understand when they are violated.

What is an Unreasonable Search or Seizure?

When you have rights – Your Fourth Amendment right can apply to a number of situations where law enforcement officers are investigating possible criminal activity. This includes being stopped while on foot, while driving a motor vehicle, during questioning, or when law enforcement arrives at your home, vehicle, or work as part of any investigation.

Law enforcement rules – Any unreasonable search and seizure involves law enforcement failing to abide by the rules and procedures inherent to lawful conduct. In order for a search and seizure to be lawful, any of the following must apply:

  • Law enforcement has a valid warrant for your arrest;
  • Law enforcement has a valid search warrant; or
  • Law enforcement has probably cause to believe you are committing a crime

Reasonable suspicion / probable cause – In order to stop you under suspicion of a crime, law enforcement must have reasonable suspicion to do so. This means that there must be certain objective facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that criminal activity may be involved, and that a further investigation (such as through a temporary detention of a vehicle) is justified. In order to further investigate you (i.e. search your person or your property) or make an arrest, law enforcement must have probable cause. This requires officers to have a justifiable reason and evidence that lead them to believe you committed a crime, are committing a crime, or will soon commit a crime.

Because probable cause is an abstract concept that can vary depending on the individual facts and circumstances, the amount of probable cause needed to conduct a search or arrest (seizure of your person) can be subjective – which means a judge would have the final say. However, law enforcement officers must still have sufficient probable cause to support their conduct, or they risk violating your rights. For example, if an officer notes that you do not display any signs of intoxication (such as red eyes, slurred speech, or erratic driving) after stopping you under suspicion of DUI or questioning you at a DUI roadblock which would lead them to believe you are driving impaired, they do not have probable cause to administer a BAC test. If they do so without justification, evidence obtained from that test may be thrown out by a judge for failing to meet the standard of probable cause.

Analyzing arrest procedures is only part of a strong defense strategy. At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, our legal team works collaboratively to evaluate all aspects of your arrest and explore all available options for an effective defense. If you have questions about criminal charges anywhere in Los Angeles County, Ventura County, or the surrounding areas of Southern California, do not hesitate to discuss your case confidentially with a member of our team during a FREE consultation. Contact us to get started.