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Civics 101: Fourth Amendment

Amendment IV

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.

The Fourth Amendment establishes our “right to privacy”.  In the age of the internet and smart phones, the Fourth Amendment is getting a lot of attention in the courts.  Of importance is the phrase “persons, houses, papers, and effects”.  Is your cell phone the modern version of your “papers”?

The primary aspect of the Fourth Amendment says that you, your house, your car, and your things can not be searched by police (or government agents) unless:

  1. You give them permission
  2. They have a valid warrant
  3. They catch you committing a crime

Permission

If the police (or any government agent) comes to your home and asks if they may come inside, you have the right to say “no”.  Under the Fourth Amendment, they can’t enter.  If you do let them in, anything they see may be used by them against you in court.

Warrant

If the police have a warrant, you must let them in.  Legally, you are allowed to see the warrant.  This warrant must say who and/or what the police are looking for.  This also limits where they are allowed to look.  For example:  If they’re looking for a stolen car, they aren’t allowed to go through your medicine cabinet–you can’t hide a car in there.

Red-Handed

If the police catch you committing a crime, they are allowed to follow you into your home or car, and search those places.

Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

If the police find any evidence of crimes without having one of the three reasons above, a judge may decide that it is “fruit of the poisonous tree”–it was gotten illegally–and therefor it, and anything they may have found out because of it, can not be used by the police.

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