The 4th Amendment and You
Welcome back. In today’s post we’ll be discussing how the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects your person from unlawful “searches” and “seizures.” Seizures can apply to property, where an officer takes contraband for evidence, but can also apply to people. We’re going to divide the subject matter into two parts; this article will explain seizures in regards to people and the next article will explain the searches.
A seizure of a person under the Fourth Amendment means that a reasonable person does not feel free to end a police encounter. For example, an arrest is the ultimate seizure. An officer pulling someone over in his vehicle is also a form of seizure, but a temporary investigatory seizure. Most types of seizure require reasonable suspicion that the seized person is or has engaged in a crime. While probable cause is required for more invasive searches, reasonable suspicion is a lower standard and applies to less invasive activities. A seizure cannot last longer than the amount of time it takes for the officer to either confirm or deny the suspicion. An officer may come up to you, talk to you, ask you questions, and in general this does not mean you are under arrest or seized, but courts will take into account the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the encounter rose to the level of a seizure.
In one case, Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, a bus bound for Atlanta stopped in Fort Lauderdale and was boarded by two Sheriffs looking for narcotics. Bostick was asked if the officer could search his bag and the officer found cocaine. The issue of whether Bostick agreed was in dispute in the case, but the case eventually arrived at the Supreme Court of the United States. Bostick’s argument was that the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights because he felt unable to end the encounter with the sheriffs, because doing so would mean the bus would leave without him. The Supreme Court was unconvinced. The fear of a bus leaving without him was an issue Bostick was already facing, which is the nature of the bus. Therefore, they found that under the circumstances the encounter with the sheriffs was not particularly coercive, and the “free to leave” test under the Fourth Amendment therefore did not apply.
To contrast this, consider the example of a young teenager, with no criminal record, suspected of shoplifting. The store personnel take him back to the office and lock the door until the police arrive. An officer comes in to talk to the youth, who notices the officer’s weapon outright. Remember the rule is whether a reasonable person would feel free to end the encounter. Therefore, the court would take into consideration the coercive nature of the situation—the locked room, the officer, the officer’s weapon. However, the court would also take into consideration more subjective standards, such as the suspect’s age or race, which may influence the person’s sense of freedom and independence in a situation. Therefore a child in this situation would feel more scared and coerced to obey police commands, which in turn may lead to the violation of his rights.
We hope you’re enjoying these articles so far. Our next post will be the final article on the Fourth Amendment.
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