In criminal cases involving drug violations, there can be a number of potential effective defense strategies, depending on the facts of the case. One important area for defendants to keep in mind is the constitutional protections provided by the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Under the Fourth Amendment, the government is required to conduct searches and seizures reasonably.
There is a relatively well-established body of case law regarding what constitutes a reasonable search and what does not. Generally speaking, a warrant is required whenever the government conducts a search. A threshold issue in any criminal defense case, then, is whether a search was conducted.
A search is usually conducted when the government infringes upon a defendant’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Examining the contents of a private home, the inside of a vehicle, or the contents of an individual’s cell phone all generally constitute searches, and generally require a warrant. Police also generally need a warrant to search an individual’s person, although there are some cases where a limited search may be conducted with only a reasonable suspicion and no warrant.
There are a variety of exceptions to the general warrant rule. Police may, for instance, conduct warrantless searches: incident to an arrest to ensure their own safety; when there are “exigent circumstances” that present the risk of loss or destruction of evidence; and when the suspect consents to the search. Searches may also be conducted de facto when the evidence is in plain view. In such cases, officers have the ability to seize that evidence as long as they are viewing it from a lawful location, with or without a warrant. Another exception is when law enforcement has probable cause to believe a vehicle contains evidence of a crime. Simply because a warrant exception applies in a case, though, does not mean officers are free do search however they please, because there are limits.
For defendants in drug cases, it is also important to examine whether search warrants that were obtained by officers were valid and properly executed. Whatever the circumstances of the case, an experienced attorney can help ensure that any search and seizure issues are thoroughly explored and addressed in building a strong defense case.
Source: The New York Times, “Major Ruling Shields Privacy of Cellphones,” Adam Liptak, June 25, 2014.