4 Areas That Are Not Protected Under Fourth Amendment Search And Seizure Laws

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Most people are aware of places that are protected against warrantless searches and seizures, such as a person’s home or vehicle.  

It is also important to know which areas do enjoy protection in order to avoid unwanted government searches.  

1. Trash

It may seem odd to consider trash when it comes to searches and seizures.  Even though trash contains items that are thrown out, many people don’t consider the fact that the government is able to search through discarded items and use evidence collected against the individual who threw the items away.  

In a Supreme Court case, California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988), police suspected that a homeowner was dealing drugs.  The police did not have enough evidence against him to obtain a warrant to search his home, so the police instead took the garbage he set out on his curb.  

They looked through the garbage and found evidence of drugs, and used that evidence to obtain a warrant to search the defendant’s house.  The search led to a conviction, and the defendant’s attorney appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court.  

The main argument presented by the defense was that searching someone’s trash was a violation of the 4th Amendment search and seizure protections found in the U.S. Constitution.

The Supreme Court held that trash is abandoned property, which may be freely taken by anyone on the streets.  Because trash is not protected, it may be taken by the government and used for purposes of obtaining a warrant.  

2. Items In Other People’s Possession

While items inside someone’s purse, backpack, car or home may be protected from government searches, the same rules do not apply when items are in someone else’s possession.  

For example, if a person leaves their backpack at a friend’s house, and the backpack contains contraband, the backpack is not protected if the police obtain a warrant to search the friend’s house.  If the friend can successfully prove the backpack does not belong to him, then the owner of the backpack may be prosecuted for the items therein.  

Likewise, a person cannot object to a search of someone else’s property simply because it may cause them to face criminal charges.  This means that, for example, if a passenger places an illegal firearm in the glove compartment of his friend’s car, he cannot object to a police search of the vehicle if the driver is arrested or consents to the search.

The passenger in this situation lacks what is known in legal terminology as "standing." A person only has standing to object to a governmental search or seizure if they own or have immediate control over a place or thing, such as a car or a purse.

3. Things Visible to the Public

In general, police cannot search areas in which a person has a "reasonable expectation of privacy" without a warrant or a warrant exception. People have reasonable expectations of privacy in their homes or in storage units, for example.  

However, courts have held that people cannot assert a reasonable expectation of privacy in items that are visible to the public. For example, people passing through airports or other public areas can be "searched" by police dogs who are trained to pick up the scent of drugs or large amounts of money.  

Because the scent of these items is exposed to the public, such searches are not considered a violation of a person’s privacy.  Also, while a wiretapped conversation would require a warrant, if police are able to see someone talking, they allowed to read their lips and decipher what is being stated by the speaker.  The words detected through lip reading may then be used against the individual in court.  

4. Social Media Accounts

Many people expose at least a portion of their lives to friends and family through the use of social media networks.  Privacy settings allow people to control who sees these posts, but even things which are posted privately on social media networks may be used against people in court if uncovered by police.  

Police are able to gain access to these posts through use of fake profiles, working with friends of the suspect to obtain screenshots of posts, or by gaining access to an individual’s computer through use of a warrant.  

In addition, website hits and downloads may be monitored by the government, since the internet is a public source.  Those who visit sites containing illegal materials, such as illegal firearm trades, may be monitored and prosecuted by the government.  

Contact Abdallah Law Today

Search and seizure laws are complex, and those who face charges related to items uncovered in a search or seizure must have dedicated and knowledgeable counsel to assist them in making sure the search was conducted lawfully and to fight against the evidence being used against them in court.  

Contact our offices today at 312-854-2677 for a free consultation with an experienced criminal law attorney.