By: Parker Rowen
The Fourth Amendment is probably one of the most important of all the amendments to understand, and be aware of, as it covers “search and seizure”. A search and seizure is being stopped by, and having the police take a look at your personal belongings. This is known as “inventory”, meaning any assets you may have (such as things on your person, your car, or your house) can be searched. There are quite a few cases within the law which set specific precedent against what does and doesn’t count as a reasonable search and seizure.
The first of these cases is ‘Terry v. Ohio’ (1968). Terry was seen with another man walking up and down the same street multiple times, each looking in the window of a jewelry store. Every time one walked down the block and looked into the store, they would return to the end of the block and talk with the person who was seemingly sizing up the place along with him. Eventually, another man joins the two, and goes down the block once himself; when they all regroup, they begin walking down another street. The officer who spotted this decided to follow these individuals. The officer assumed the men were planning an armed robbery, so they may have a gun. He followed these two and stopped Terry, then proceeded to pat him down.
They decided in this case, the cop had reasonable suspicion to pat Terry down. The actions of Terry couldn’t be defined as reasonable and normal (non-criminal) actions. Therefore, the cop was justified in his search.
This was very important for the concept of a search and seizure, this helped define what could be used as “reasonable suspicion” and lowered the standard for searches. The important piece to take away from this case, is that any and all search and seizures must be “justified at their inception”, meaning the officer must have “articulable facts” to back up the reason for the stop. An officer’s judgments based on speculation are not enough to justify a search, but instead, the facts presented to the officer at the time (in this case, Terry consistently walking up to the same store and peaking inside, along with conferring with another man after every time passing by).
The next case I would like to discuss is ‘St. Paul v. Uber’ (1999). This case was paramount in setting the standard for profiling. “Uber” was a white male, driving a truck registered to Mounds View, Minnesota, in the Summit-University Ave. area of St. Paul, a place at the time known for prostitution, around the hour of 2 a.m., with Uber fitting the profile for a man seeking prostitutes. Uber was seen driving around the same city block by a police officer twice within a 30 minute period; the officer found this behavior to be suspicious and indicative of some sort of criminal behavior, and ran Uber’s plates to discover his suspended license. The officer proceeded to pull him over. When this happened, it was found that Uber was intoxicated and was promptly arrested. The courts found that the facts of Uber’s appearance, or as to why he was in that neighborhood were not relevant, though the suspended license was enough to justify the stop.
An important note from this case is the relevance of why you were in a certain area at a certain time, and simply put: it isn’t. The court ruled that, so long as you are not disturbing the peace, or committing any unlawful acts on public property, you have no obligation to state a reason as to why you are there. You are not allowed to be pulled over for the reason of being in a neighborhood, whether a high-crime neighborhood or not.
The other important takeaway from this, is the “totality of circumstances”, which means that, alongside the articulable facts, less relevant pieces may be used as further justification for a search, such as the cop’s experience on the force, or the suspended license in this case.
The final case I will be reviewing is ‘Alabama v. White’ (1990). This case was one defining the use of “anonymous tips”. White was found guilty for possession of cocaine, after an anonymous tip came in alerting the police to his behavior. The caller reported White to be leaving his apartment at a specific time, while carrying cocaine in a brown case, in his Plymouth station wagon, with a broken right taillight, and that he would be stopping at a motel at a certain time. Police decided to watch around the apartment, and when they saw a Plymouth station wagon leave and begin to take the most direct route to the motel, police stopped him around a block or two before the motel. When asked to look inside the vehicle, White consented. When they located a locked case matching the description of the one in which the cocaine was supposedly stored, the police requested White to unlock it, and once again, White consented. The police found and seized both marijuana, and cocaine within the case and White was quickly arrested.
The courts found this tip to be enough to justify the stop, as the facts were so specific they decided “Only someone with intimate detail of White’s personal life could know,” these types of facts.
The most important lesson to learn from this, is one about consent. The officers did not have enough information to justify looking within that case, but with White unlocking it at their request, anything found within the case was perfectly admissible as evidence in court via the “plain sight” rule (meaning if something is able to be seen, it is considered being presented to whoever may pass by, and therefore is considered public information).
Your rights against search and seizure are very important ones to understand. Oftentimes, the police will find an excuse to arrest you, and allowing them to search your person is just one tool you’ve given them to do so. There are very specific circumstances surrounding what justifies a stop. Knowing these are important for any defense you may have to make later in your life, and to protect you against tyranny, and abuse of the people, perpetrated by the government.