The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was part of the original Bill of Rights. The amendment is designed to protect persons, houses, papers, and effects from unreasonable searches and seizures. But the Fourth Amendment did not clarify exactly what qualifies as an unreasonable search and seizure. So it has been the courts who have determined what our Fourth Amendment rights actually are.
The Fourth Amendment protects us from the government seizing our persons, houses, papers, or effects. However, the amendment only protects against unreasonable searches and seizures and does not prohibit the government from ever seizing that which we consider private.
The government can seize people or property without violating the Fourth Amendment if they obtain a warrant from a neutral magistrate. The government official seeking the warrant must provide an application under oath/affirmation describing the individuals and/or property to be seized. The application must also identify the location to be searched.
The Fourth Amendment does not describe what constitutes probable cause. The courts have defined probable cause to mean that the government official applying for the warrant must have reasonable grounds for believing that the person named has committed a crime, or that there is evidence of a crime at a place they desire to search.
Over the years, the courts have also developed a number of exceptions to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. These exceptions permit arrest or detention of a person or seizure of property without a warrant.
Originally, the courts held that electronic surveillance did not fall within the protections granted by the Fourth Amendment. But after the passage of the Federal Communications Act, and as courts expanded the privacy right protection of the Fourth Amendment, they also began to include electronic surveillance within the warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment. So today, the general rule is that the government must obtain a warrant prior to undertaking electronic surveillance.
When the US government violates an American’s Fourth Amendment rights, the courts apply the Exclusionary Rule. While the Exclusionary Rule can be complex, it generally means that when the courts conclude that the government violated a person’s Fourth Amendment rights, they will not be permitted to use the evidence they seized against that person in court.
This is only an overview of our rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. As with most criminal constitutional law issues, individual cases can be extremely complex. A skilled criminal defense lawyer Phoenix AZ counts on can help you determine if your Fourth Amendment rights were violated.
Thanks to our friends and contributors from Lorona|Mead for their insight into the fourth amendment’s protections.