Search & Seizure Laws | Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys
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The constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provide citizens with many protections against overreaching government power. One of the most important is the protection of all citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. The search and seizure laws that have developed through Supreme Court decisions on the national and state levels work to ensure that you are protected from baseless searches by the police.

If you are searched illegally then search and seizure laws can prevent evidence discovered during that illegal search from being used against you in court. An experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney can recognize if you have been the victim of an unreasonable search or seizure and work to prevent illegally obtained evidence from being used against you.

Call Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC today at (412) 281-2146 to find out how we can help you.

Federal Search & Seizure Laws

The basis for all search and seizure protections in the United States is found in the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads:

“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.”

The Fourth Amendment establishes that the government cannot search citizens without reason. If a search is to be conducted, it must be done after a search warrant has been obtained once the government has proven probable cause for the need to search specific areas for specific items.

Pennsylvania Search & Seizure Laws

The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provides similar protections from government searches and seizures. The protections are outlined in Article I, Section 8, which states:

“The people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and possessions from unreasonable searches and seizures, and no warrant to search any place or to seize any person or things shall issue without describing them as nearly as may be, nor without probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation subscribed to by the affiant.”

As with the U.S. Constitution, the citizens of Pennsylvania are protected from “unreasonable searches and seizures” and a search warrant requires probable cause to search for specifically described items.

Exceptions to the Search Warrant Requirement

While both constitutions impose a search warrant requirement, the United States Supreme Court has created exceptions to the search warrant requirement where individual rights have been balanced against the government’s interests. The following are some of the most notable exceptions to the search warrant requirement:

  • Consent – If an individual is reasonably believed to have given the authority consent to a search, then no search warrant is required.
  • Plain View – When evidence can be viewed in the open, no search warrant is required. The plain view exception does not include the use of vision enhancement devices such as binoculars. Additionally, there is no plain view exception if a law enforcement officer is in a location illegally.
  • Searches Incident to Arrest – If a law enforcement officer is conducting a lawful arrest, a search of the person and the area around the person can be conducted without a search warrant.
  • Automobile Searches – Law enforcement can search a vehicle without a search warrant if they have probable cause to believe it contains evidence of a crime. Warrantless searches are allowed because vehicles are designed to be mobile and requiring a warrant could cause the evidence to be lost.
  • Exigent Circumstances – This exception allows law enforcement officers to conduct a search or enter premises without a warrant in situations where there is an emergency. The emergency could be where lives are in danger, evidence is in danger of being destroyed or a suspect could potentially escape.

The Exclusionary Rule

If a government conducts an illegal search or seizure and collects evidence that is then used against you in court, then the Fourth Amendment protections become meaningless. For that reason, the United States Supreme Court has created a strong protection for Fourth Amendment rights over the years called the exclusionary rule. The exclusionary rule is a legal principle that evidence obtained by the government through the violation of constitutional rights can be ruled inadmissible as evidence in a criminal trial.

An example of the exclusionary rule in action would be if the police discovered drugs while searching a person’s home in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights and then charged that person with drug possession. Under the exclusionary rule, the drugs that were found as a result of the unconstitutional search would not be admissible as evidence at the trial, making a conviction on drug possession charges nearly impossible.

A well-known extension of the exclusionary rule is the doctrine known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Under this doctrine not only is evidence that is directly discovered through an unconstitutional search potentially inadmissible at trial, but so is evidence that is later discovered as a result of the unconstitutional search. If the police conducted an unconstitutional search of a person’s home and uncovered the address of a storage locker where they later found drugs those drugs could potentially be excluded from a drug possession trial. The unconstitutional search would be considered the poisonous tree, with the drugs found in the storage locker being the fruit of the poisonous tree.

Differences Between United States and Pennsylvania Laws

While the constitutional provisions regarding search and seizure are extremely similar for the United States and Pennsylvania they still create two distinct bodies of law. The search and seizure laws created through the United States Constitution provide the lowest level of protection for individuals and states are allowed to go further in providing its citizens’ protections from governmental searches and seizures. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has acknowledged that there is a “strong notion of privacy embodied” in Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and has at times provided for more protection of individual privacy than the United States Supreme Court. Such instances include cases involving the suspicionless drug testing of school students and warrant requirements for accessing bank records.

Good Faith Exception to the Exclusionary Rule

The largest difference between United States law and Pennsylvania law regarding searches and seizures is related to the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. The United States has adopted a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule, where evidence can be admitted at trial even if it was obtained under an invalid search warrant as long as the law enforcement officers were acting under a good faith belief that the search warrant was valid. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has rejected the good faith exception, ruling that it is not incorporated in Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

How Skilled Pittsburgh Criminal Defense Attorneys Can Help

The ability of citizens to remain free from unreasonable government searches and seizures is an extraordinarily important aspect of the constitutions for both the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. With the exclusionary rule in place to protect those rights, the question of whether a search was constitutional can be the deciding factor in a criminal trial. However, the differences between search and seizure laws for the United States and Pennsylvania mean that you will want an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney on your side to ensure your constitutional rights are properly defended.

Our criminal defense lawyers at Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC have represented hundreds of clients and understand the damage that can be done when your rights are violated and it leads to serious criminal charges. Call (412) 281-2146 for a free and confidential consultation with a Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney today.

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