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Can I Sue the Police for Illegal Search and Seizure in Pennsylvania?

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects us all from illegal searches and seizures. The rationale behind this fundamental principle is that we, as citizens of the United States of America, have an expectation of privacy, one that cannot be violated. Therefore, the police must have a basis for infringing on this important expectation.

If you believe you were a victim of an illegal search warrant in Pennsylvania and want to explore your legal options, call our Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyers at Young, Marr & Associates today for a free consultation at (215) 372-8667.

The Difference Between Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause

Cases are won and lost on what’s known as “motions to suppress” evidence on the basis that the police acted without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. For example, maybe the police searched a car without requisite probable cause; or maybe police stopped a person on the street for no reason, or maybe police stopped a vehicle without probable cause that the driver was driving under the influence; or maybe the police entered a home without a warrant. In these types of cases, it is critical to analyze each and every fact closely so that a proper motion to suppress can be filed.

Reasonable suspicion requires police to have an objective, reasonable belief that criminal activity is afoot. Police must demonstrate specific and articulable facts such that, given the totality of circumstances, it was reasonable to presume that criminal activity may have been occurring. So what can police do if they have reasonable suspicion? Reasonable suspicion allows an officer to briefly stop an individual and investigate. The officer is then allowed to briefly “pat-down” an individual to see if the individual is carrying any dangerous weapons or illegal narcotics. Am I technically under arrest? NO! The individual is free to decline the officer’s questions at any time. The individual is also free to leave the area at any time. The legal question on a motion to suppress will, therefore, be two-fold: did the police have a sufficiently reasonable basis to briefly stop and investigate, and did the person feel free to decline the officers’ questions and leave the scene.

Here’s a hypothetical: Police see two teenagers sitting in a vehicle that is parked in the parking lot of a convenience store which is closed for business. Police approach the vehicle and start asking where the two teenagers were coming from and what they were doing in the vehicle. Police then pull the driver out of the vehicle and begin to frisk the individual’s person. During the frisk, police find drugs inside the individual’s pocket. On a motion to suppress the drug evidence, the question of reasonable suspicion would arise in the context of (1) did the police have a sufficiently reasonable basis to briefly stop and investigate the two teenagers who were sitting in the car; and (2) did the driver of the vehicle feel free to decline the officer’s questions and leave the scene. If the answer is no, then a motion to suppress the drug evidence would be granted on the basis that the police acted without reasonable suspicion and therefore violated the individual’s protections guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Probable cause is a much higher standard than reasonable suspicion, however. Probable cause requires police to not only believe that criminal activity is afoot, but also that a “search” would likely reveal the presence of illegality. Probable cause is based on the totality of circumstances. Courts will look to all of the facts and circumstances involved to determine whether it was reasonable for police to believe that upon further investigation, they would find evidence of illegal activity.

Motions to suppress on the basis of lack of probable causes oftentimes arise in the context of an illegal search. For example, maybe the police searched a vehicle without probable cause; or maybe the police searched a home without probable cause. Any evidence found as a result of the police acting without the requisite probable cause would be inadmissible in a court of law.

Here’s how it works: let’s take the above hypothetical and say that when the police approached the two teenagers sitting inside of the vehicle, the police smelled marijuana from within the car. In this context, it would be reasonable for the police officers to presume that a search of the vehicle would likely lead to evidence of marijuana since there was an odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle.

When Can Police Search Your Car or Home in Pennsylvania?

Do police offers need a search warrant to search your vehicle or home? Not always. Generally speaking, the police need a warrant to search. However, there are limited circumstances in which police can act without a warrant, altogether.

Searching Your Vehicle

A recently decided Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision held that police now have the ability to search a vehicle without a search warrant provided that they have probable cause. Comm. v. Gary. These types of cases frequently arise in situations such as the one described in the above hypothetical (i.e., odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle), but they also arise in situations where an officer sees someone in the vehicle make sudden, furtive movements inside. Whatever the case may be, police need probable cause to search a vehicle without a warrant. If they search without it, then any evidence found is inadmissible in a court of law.

Searching Your Home

The basic principle with homes is always this: did the police have a warrant to enter the home? An individual has a much higher expectation of privacy in their home than in their vehicle and, so, the law is much more narrow in terms of when the police can enter the home to search without a warrant. Here’s when police can enter without a warrant:

  1. Consent – The most common way the police enter the home without a warrant is when the individual gives consent for the police to enter. In this instance, though, the person consenting must be in a position to actually consent to the search. In other words, the person consenting must be someone who resides in the home and has authority (or apparent authority) to consent.
  2. Hot Pursuit – The police may enter a home without a warrant if they are in hot pursuit of a felon and they have reason to believe that the felon might be inside of the home.
  3. Plain View – The police may also enter a home if they can see evidence of a crime inside of the home. The key here, though, is that the evidence must be of such a nature that it can easily be destroyed if police left the scene to get a warrant.
  4. Curtilage – This is the area of the home which encompasses the immediate outside parameter. This includes fenced in back/front yards and driveways. It also includes garbage cans that are left outside for pick-up.

What Happens If the Police Do Not Read You Your Miranda Rights?

Police are required under the 5th Amendment to read you Miranda warnings. These warnings were created so as to protect an individual from making any incriminating statements. So when are they read? Police are required to read these warning anytime an individual is placed in a “custodial interrogation.” “Custodial” refers to whether or not the individual is free to leave. The individual need not be physically placed in handcuffs, though. The term custodial can occur in situations where the individual is simply standing on the side of the road being questioned by police. “Interrogation” means that the police are asking questions designed to illicit an incriminating response. In these situations, the police must read an individual Miranda warnings. Any statements given without these necessary warnings are inadmissible in a court of law and cannot be used in a prosecution.

Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Lawyers Offering Free Consultations

It is important as a citizen for you to know your rights during a police search. Are you considering suing for an illegal search and seizure in Pennsylvania? The criminal defense lawyers of Young, Marr & Associates can help to guide you through the process. Call for a free consultation today at (215) 372-8667.

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