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Illegal Search and Seizure Cases

Bart Kaspero Law > Attorney Profile > Illegal Search and Seizure Cases

Illegal Search and Seizure Cases: A Case Study

The body of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution is as follows:


“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.”


While it may seem like the protections afforded by the text are fairly clear, yet the Fourth Amendment has become one of the most controversial legal precepts in history and courts have sought to definitely determine what is exactly meant by such terms as “probable cause” and “illegal searches and seizures” as the verdicts of countless criminal cases depend on how one decides to interpret them. In the centuries since the ratification of the Constitution, the Supreme Court of the United States, as well as the myriad of lower courts, has refined how the Fourth Amendment is applied in reality. To understand exactly how the justice system works for, or against a person, one must understand how exactly courts have applied the law in specific cases and below are some of the most significant cases to affect Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.


Katz v. United States (1967)

The basic facts of Katz v. United States is that a man, Katz, was using a public pay phone booth to transmit illegal gambling wagers and the FBI placed a listening device on the phone. After Katz’s arrest, his lawyers argued that the while it is public, a phone booth provides a reasonable expectation of privacy that should require the FBI to get a warrant to eavesdrop. When Katz v. United States was decided in 1967, Justice Stewart delivered an opinion that overturned legal precedence that had stood for decades under the cases Olmstead v. United States and Goldman v. United States that essentially allowed unwarranted electronic surveillance on American citizens, and his judicial colleagues approved to the tune of 7 to 1. In the text of his opinion, Stewart makes the distinction that the 4th Amendment applies to “people, not places” (Katz opinion), creating a kind of 4th Amendment bubble around every citizen that expands and shrinks depending on the area they are in (car, house, phone booth, etc.). While Katz established the foundation of personal privacy rights, the concept of how much privacy is afforded where has developed over the decades, and the major areas of concern are one’s home and personal vehicles, as well as guest residencies such as hotels or a friend’s house.


California v. Greenwood (1988)

California v. Greenwood is also an interesting take on privacy in the home, as Greenwood was indicted on drug charges when officers rummaged through trash he has taken to the curb for disposal. While privacy within the home remains sacred in the Greenwood opinion, trash on the curb is considered to be on public display where anyone could open it and examine its contents. Once the trash reaches the dump, it is also anyone with a strong constitution’s prerogative to dig through it. The opinion of Greenwood actually relied on part of Stewart’s opinion in Katz, which states, “what a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection” (Katz, Stewart’s opinion)


Schmerber v. California (1966)

The details of Schmerber are fairly standard, as it involves a drunk driver who felt that a mandatory blood test was an invasion of his body and therefore an illegal search. The Supreme Court ultimately decided that while it is technically an unreasonable search normally, there are certain instances where taking blood from a suspect is urgent and necessary, therefore legal.


Chimel v.California (1969)

In Chimel the police arrested the defendant in his home and then continued to search the entire house and found a great deal of evidence they planned to use to prosecute. The Supreme Court saw this as an example of an illegal search and ruled that the police can search the area in direct control of the suspect, for safety reasons, but would need a separate warrant to search the entire premises.


Kyllo v. United States (2001)

Danny Lee Kyllo was arrested by Federal authorities on the suspicion of growing marijuana in his home, and it was revealed that they gathered their evidence using a thermal imaging camera to see inside Kyllo’s home. His lawyer’s fought against his conviction on the grounds that this was an extremely unreasonable search, and in a narrow 5 to 4 vote, the Supreme Court found that while it was not a physical search, using a thermal imaging camera was still technically a search and a person is legally afforded a high level of privacy in their home, making Kyllo’s conviction unconstitutional.


Florida v. Riley (1989)

While similar to Kyllo, Riley went a very different direction. In this case, police used a helicopter to look over a private wall in rural Florida to discover that Riley was growing thousands of pounds of marijuana. He argued that this was a violation of his privacy, but the Court disagreed and found that it is unreasonable to expect that your privacy extends to what can be seen from the air.


Terry v. Ohio (1968)

Terry v. Ohio is one of the most significant cases in the world of illegal searches and seizures as it established the “stop and frisk” precedent that has become a very contentious subject in New York City. In the case, an undercover cop saw two men acting odd so he stopped them and searched them, finding illegal firearms. The defense believed that the officer did not have probable cause to initiate a search, and the prosecution argued that it was not a true search as it was only of the outlying clothing. The Supreme Court sided with the prosecutors and found that a cursory search of the outer layers of clothing during a standard stop on the street is needed for the safety of law enforcement agents and therefore constitutional.