If you believe you have been subject to an illegal stop, search or seizure of your property by police, an experienced South Carolina criminal defense attorney can help. Our firm has experience suppressing illegally obtained evidence in court, and will fight to protect your right to be free from illegal searches and seizures, regardless of what type of alleged contraband police claim to have found.
Common Types of Items Seized by Police
Illegal Per Se
Police have the authority to seize illegal items found during legal searches. These items are known as Illegal Per Se. As well, they may take items that have evidentiary value in the proof of the commission of another crime. In certain instances, the police have gone to a judge or magistrate seeking a search warrant for specific items in an attempt to gather evidence. Some of the most common items taken by police during a search of a motor vehicle or home, include:
Drugs and drug paraphernalia;
Large sums of cash;
Suspected stolen goods;
Phones and computers;
Electronic equipment; and
Anything that may be used as evidence of a crime.
What Are Police Authorized to Seize During a Search?
The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, which means that “reasonable” searches and seizures are permitted. What constitutes a “reasonable” search or seizure has been the subject of many court battles but, over time, some general standards have been developed.
Probable Cause for Searches
Most people are familiar with the concept of “probable cause,” or the understanding that police must have a reason to believe a crime has occurred before they can legally conduct a search. Specifically, the standard put forth by the courts is that police must have a reason to believe it is more likely than not that a crime has taken place.
“‘a state of facts as would lead a [person] of ordinary caution or prudence to believe and conscientiously entertain a strong suspicion’” of the fact to be proved.” People v. Hardacre, 109 Cal.Rptr.2d 667 (Cal.App. 6 Dist. 2001); see also State v. Pledger, 896 P.2d 1226 (Utah 1995) “This standard [probable cause] is lower, even, than a preponderance of the evidence standard applicable to civil cases.”
Sometimes, police will rely on tips from an informant or third-party with alleged first-hand information in order to establish probable cause. However, the police still have the burden of proving that the informant was reliable.
If you were subject to a search or seizure based on informant tips, your criminal defense attorney can challenge the informant’s reliability in court. If the court finds that the police’s decision to trust the informant was unreasonable, the evidence seized will likely be inadmissible.
In some cases, search warrants are required and police must obtain judicial approval before they can legally conduct a search.
Search warrants must be specific in nature, setting forth which items are being sought and where in the home or vehicle they could be expected to be found. Possessing a search warrant does not give police the right to ransack everything on your property and seize anything they find that might be incriminating.
Extending the Bounds of a Search Warrant Under the Law
There are a few circumstances under which police could legally extend the bounds of the search warrant. If they feel their safety is threatened, they may take steps to secure their safety. For instance, if police feel threatened because they heard noises from behind the basement door while legally searching in the family room, the court might consider it reasonable for them to open the basement door to make certain no one is lurking there, waiting to attack.
Police may also take steps to prevent the destruction of evidence. For instance, if they have reason to believe drugs are being flushed down the toilet, they may be permitted to enter a closed bathroom, even if the search warrant did not specify the bathroom as the location to be searched.
Relevant, illegal or stolen items that are in plain view may also be legally examined by police, even though the search warrant may not refer to those items. For example, if police are performing a drug raid but find a bunch of stolen electronics gone missing from a neighboring home in the middle of the suspect’s basement, those items could properly be seized.
Police may also search another portion of your home or vehicle if their initial search leads them to believe the stolen or illegal items are located in a part of your property not specified in the search warrant. This can be difficult for police to establish, though. The reason for searching in areas not designated by the warrant cannot be merely that the items sought were not initially found when searching the allowable areas as set forth in the search warrant.
Expectation of Privacy
Courts have determined that a search warrant is not necessary when evidence is found in a place that the defendant should have no reasonable expectation of privacy. A person’s trash is one such example. When trash in inside a person’s home, it is considered private property just like any other item. But, once the trash is placed at the curb, it is considered to have been discarded and thus no longer holds the same expectation of privacy.
Warrantless Search, Seizure, and Arrest
If police believe you are involved in a crime and may be carrying a dangerous weapon, they may perform a “stop and frisk” to pat down the outer clothing on your person for weapons. The “stop and frisk” procedure has been the subject of much legal debate though, since police may not rely on stereotyping or racial profiling in order to justify checking a person for weapons. Rather, they must have a reasonable suspicion that you are actively involved in criminal activity at the moment of the stop, or there is criminal activity afoot.
If you are arrested, police may legally perform an “inventory search” of the items you are carrying on your person, but only if they already have cause to arrest you. They may also perform a cursory search of the immediate area in your vicinity, to make sure that you do not have a dangerous weapon within your reach, or an accomplice hiding nearby.
Police may also perform warrantless searches and seizures when they are in “hot pursuit” of a suspect. For instance, if you are a bank robbery suspect, and police pursue you as you flee to a private residence, police may search the residence without a warrant insofar as it is necessary to apprehend you and ensure safety and preservation of evidence.
Searches and Seizures and Your Vehicle
If you are arrested following a traffic stop and your car is impounded, police may also search your vehicle. They may also search your vehicle if they have probable cause to believe it contains illegal or stolen items, or if they fear for their safety. They may not, however, search your entire vehicle simply because you were arrested, or even to ensure safety, since you will not be able to reach any weapons hidden in your trunk, for instance, during a traffic stop.
Consult an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney
Evidence seized illegally or as the result of an illegal search or stop are often referred to as the “fruit of the poisoned tree,” since they should be found inadmissible in court. Our firm’s experienced Charlotte criminal defense lawyers at the Michael Jeffcoat Firm will fight to protect your right to remain free of unreasonable searches and illegal seizures. No matter what type of evidence the police allege to have found, we will fight to keep illegally seized evidence out of Court and being used against you in the prosecution of their case.
Mr. Jeffcoat, a native of the Columbia area, founded the law firm in 1999. Mr. Jeffcoat got his undergraduate degree at Wofford College in 1994, majoring in Political Economy and Philosophy, and then went to the University of South Carolina School of Law, where he received his J.D. in 1997. After working in two law firms following his graduation from law school, Jeffcoat ventured out on his own to launch The Jeffcoat Firm in March of 1999.