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Search and Seizure

Search and seizure are actions that police officers may take in investigating a crime. In this article, we define the term “search and seizure” and discuss the U.S. laws governing it. 

Key Takeaways

  • Search and seizure is a term describing a law enforcement officer’s investigation of a person’s property in order to find evidence of a crime
  • Search involves going through a person’s property and seizure involves taking possession of items found in a search
  • Search and seizure is governed by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, which require search and seizure to be reasonable
  • In order to justify a search and seizure, law enforcement officers must either have a search warrant, probable cause, or reasonable suspicion
  • Courts may not admit evidence found in illegal search and seizure

What Is Search and Seizure?

In criminal law, the term search and seizure describes a law enforcement agent’s examination of a person’s home, business, or vehicle in order to find evidence of a crime. A search involves law enforcement officers going through a person’s property looking for specific items related to the crime they are investigating. A seizure is when the officer takes possession of items during a search. 

Search and seizure is governed by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution which require that any search of a person or their premises and any seizure of evidence must be reasonable. In order to perform a search, law enforcement must usually obtain a search warrant from a judge specifying where they may search and what they may seize. 

However, under emergency circumstances, law officers may perform searches without a warrant as long as they either have probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Probable cause requires facts and circumstances that would lead a prudent man to believe that a suspect has committed a crime, is committing a crime, or has evidence of a crime. Reasonable suspicion requires objective, specific information that leads a law enforcement officer to suspect a person has, or is about to, commit a crime.

Search and Seizure & The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, 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.” This has led to a lot of focus on what constitutes an unreasonable search and seizure. The following are now understood to be illegal search and seizure:

  • The unauthorized confiscation of physical evidence
  • Interception of oral communications by electronic eavesdropping
  • Matters observed through an unauthorized invasion of privacy

Searches made under the consent of the person being searched are considered reasonable even if the consent was affected by police deception. 

​​The exclusionary rule makes it illegal for U.S. courts to admit evidence to criminal proceedings that was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

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