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What Constitutes an Illegal Search and Seizure?

by Shelby Wall

Law enforcement officers in Southern California must abide by federal and state laws regarding searches and seizures. If you have been subjected to an illegal search and seizure, you have legal rights.

What is a Search and Seizure?

The phrase “search and seizure” is a criminal law term. It refers to when a law enforcement officer examines someone’s vehicle, home, or business to discover evidence of a crime. The legal term has two parts, “search” and “seizure.”

  • Search refers to the officers going through the person’s property and looking for evidence of a crime they believe to have been committed. 
  • Seizure refers to the officers taking possession of the evidence found during the search.

Depending on how the officers conducted the search and seizure, the officers may have followed the requisite federal and local laws correctly, and the process was legal. However, sometimes, officers make mistakes or break the law. This would constitute an illegal search and seizure.

Legal Search and Seizures in California

In California, law enforcement officers must abide by federal and local California laws and regulations when conducting a search and seizure.

Federal Laws

The U.S. Constitution’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments outline federal guidelines and restrictions for a legal search and seizure. They require that any search and seizure of tangible evidence must be reasonable. This typically requires officers to obtain a search warrant specifying the boundaries of the search and what items may be seized. However, in emergencies, officers are allowed to proceed without a warrant.

California Laws

While officers must obey federal law, local search and seizure laws vary from state to state. California has additional laws officers must abide by. In Orange County and the rest of California, officers can search a person, their home, vehicle, or other personal property if officers believe they committed a crime. However, they still must obtain a warrant except in a few specific situations. Exceptions include instances when:

  • The person consented to the search and seizure.
  • The search and seizure pertains to a lawful arrest.
  • The search is conducted for official inspection purposes, like international border crossings.
  • The items searched and seized are in plain view, like an illegal weapon resting on the passenger seat.
  • The search and seizure is performed in an emergency to prevent physical harm, property damage, or to find a fleeing suspect.

The exact requirements can vary depending on the type of property being searched. For example, searching a person’s office may hold different criteria than searching a cell phone.

Illegal Search and Seizure in California

California and federal laws bar enforcement officers from conducting searches and seizures whenever they want. Otherwise, they could easily use this power to harass and profile citizens based on their race, class, gender, neighborhood, or other irrelevant, prejudicial factors. Additionally, SB 443 made it more difficult for officers to conduct seizures without seeking a warrant.

If an officer searches and seizes evidence illegally, that evidence may be found inadmissible in court. This is due to the federal exclusionary rule that prevents the use of evidence gathered in violation of the Constitution. 

What to Do When Your Legal Rights are Violated

If you have been subjected to an illegal search and seizure in Southern California, contact the Law Office of Ronald G. Brower, attorney at law. He has been representing victims of unreasonable search and seizure cases throughout Orange County and Southern California for 45 years. 

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