One of the several rights guaranteed to Floridians (and everyone within the jurisdiction of the United States) by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution is the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures by government actors. But what does that really mean? Here’s what you need to know about your right against unreasonable search and seizure in Florida.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified with the rest of the Bill of Rights in 1791. It reads 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.”
As with a great deal of United States jurisprudence, the limits on searching and seizing one’s personal effects has roots in English common law. One of the earliest mentions of the right came in Semayne’s case in 1604. The opinion stated in pertinent part:
“The house of every one is to him as his castle and fortress, as well for his defence against injury and violence as for his repose.”
Though the English homeland enjoyed such rights against search and seizure, the situation in the Colonies was quite different. British authorities frequently used general warrants to search and seize property of individuals, much to the chagrin of the Colonists. After the revolution, several states recognized the need to prevent such a situation from happening again, and by 1784, eight of the states’ constitutions had some limit on searches and seizures memorialized in their constitutions.
With the passage of the Fourth Amendment, limits on searches and seizures became part of the federal law. The ins and outs of the warrant requirement are beyond the scope of this article, but in the years since the Fourth Amendment has been ratified, courts have recognized exceptions to the rule.
As a general principle, a warrant is required when and where an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, several exigent circumstances have been carved out that fall into three basic categories:
preservation of evidence from destruction, and
If an officer of the law has entered the property to render assistance that is both necessary and immediately needed, any evidence of a crime the officer may come across may be admissible in a prosecution, and no warrant is needed.
If an officer of the law is aware of evidence that is at risk of being destroyed, such as drugs being flushed down the toilet, no warrant is needed in this situation.
Finally, if an officer of the law is in hot pursuit of a criminal suspect, the evidence he may come across is also exempt from requiring a search warrant to obtain.
Broadly speaking, Florida courts have stated that an exigent circumstance exists where the need for law enforcement to act is imperative, and there is no time to obtain a search warrant. Florida courts have applied one additional factor, which is the severity of the crime the suspect is accused of. Florida courts have found that a suspect that is under suspicion of committing a nonviolent misdemeanor means that the crime is not serious enough to justify an exception.