Understanding the Fourth Amendment: How It Affects Your Pre-Trial

For many defendants who have been charged with one or more crimes, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution often proves to be their greatest ally and their best defense during the pre-trial. A skilled defense attorney will be able to identify instances in which government officials may have crossed this important boundary in investigating your case, and use them to strengthen your defense.


Often called the search-and-seizure law, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights, and reads as follows:

Police Search“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.”

In modern English, this basically means the government is limited as to when and how it may invade your privacy, search your property and/or seize items of interest. In most cases, authorities must be able to demonstrate “probable cause”—that is, a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing—and obtain a warrant from a judge before invading your space. The philosophy behind this law is to protect citizens’ privacy, to keep the government from being arbitrary in its practices, and to reduce the risk of circumstantial evidence being used to incriminate a citizen who may actually be innocent.


Because the ‘reasonable’ aspect of the Fourth Amendment is naturally ambiguous, there are often times when authorities conduct search-and-seizure on questionable grounds, whether on purpose or unintentionally. What constitutes probable cause? At what point should a suspicious police officer stop engaging the suspect and retreat to obtain a warrant? These questions have become even more complex with the advent of digital technology and the Internet: does the government have the right to search email accounts or Facebook without a warrant, for example?

This ambiguity is often the area in which an experienced defense attorney has the most leverage to work on your behalf during pre-trial negotiations. If there is any instance, especially during the investigation prior to your arrest, in which authorities have stepped into shaky territory with regard to search-and-seizure, the evidence they obtain is not legally permissible to use against you at trial. If your attorney convinces the courts that the evidence is questionable on these grounds, it increases the probability of reduced or dropped charges. Likewise, if certain charges against you are on more solid footing while others are based on inadmissible evidence, your attorney may be in a better position to negotiate a plea bargain for lesser charges.

In most cases, investigators and law enforcement officers are careful to follow the rules when collecting their evidence, for the simple reason that they don’t want the evidence thrown out. However, there are still times when search-and-seizure practices flirt with the line, and that’s when the Fourth Amendment can work in your behalf. For more information and expert advice, call the attorneys at the Federal Criminal Law Center.