The Fourth Amendment, which prohibits the police from “unreasonable” search and seizure, is one of the most important constitutional protections in criminal defense. The amendment provides that the police had better have a good reason before they arrest or search a person. The legal term for this good reason is “probable cause.” .
The amendment comes up often in cases involving traffic stops. For instance, imagine a case where a police officer sees a driver run a stop sign. The officer then pulls over the driver’s car. The officer’s traffic stop is not unreasonable, because the officer saw the driver break the law.
If the officer doesn’t see the driver do anything wrong, can they still pull over the car? This is a harder question. It’s not enough for an officer to say they just had a funny feeling about the car. A funny feeling is not enough to support probable cause, but it isn’t always clear where to draw the line between reasonable and unreasonable searches. Courts often argue over whether the police overstepped their authority.
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that may have expanded the definition of reasonable stops. The case involved a police officer who saw a car on the road, looked up its license plate number in the police computer system, and saw that the registered owner of the car had a suspended driver’s license. Assuming that the driver was the registered owner, the officer pulled over the car. The officer found that the registered owner was indeed driving the car without a license, and arrested the driver.
The issue in the case was whether the officer had probable cause for the stop. A state supreme court found for the driver, finding that the officer had been unreasonable in assuming that the driver was the registered owner. It might have been a friend or relative. The U.S. Supreme overruled that decision, saying that the officer’s assumption was based on common sense.
The decision helps illustrate how the interpretation of “unreasonable” search and seizure is always changing. It’s important for those who are accused of crimes to speak with experienced attorneys about their constitutional rights.