People often have a topical understanding of their protection from misconduct by police officers and other state authority figures. The Fourth Amendment extends protection from unreasonable searches and seizures of property, but the average adult (understandably) may not fully understand the implications of that right.
For example, someone might believe that police officers have conducted an unlawful search but they aren’t quite sure what that claim would mean for their criminal case. In general, police officers need to follow very specific rules regarding when they search and how they conduct searches. Oftentimes, officers require permission to conduct a search, although they can also search if they have probable cause to believe a crime occurred or when they have a valid warrant signed by a judge.
If officers conduct a search in a manner that deviates from those basic rules, what impact could that potentially have on a criminal case against those affected by an unlawful search?
Illegal searches can invalidate evidence
The point of conducting a search is to gather evidence that the state can use to bring charges against someone and convince a jury of their guilt. A prosecutor will use the evidence police officers gather to build their case, which is why officers have an incentive to break the rules related to searches.
If a criminal defense attorney representing a defendant knows that officers conducted an illegal search, that information could play a major role in their defense strategy. They may attempt to leverage the exclusionary rule that allows them to keep illegally obtained evidence out of the trial. If a lawyer can convince a judge that police officers violated someone’s rights or the law when conducting a search, the courts will typically exclude that evidence from the criminal proceedings.
In some cases, invoking the exclusionary rule will mean that the courts have no choice but to dismiss the charges against someone because the state no longer has any evidence. Even if the trial proceeds, eliminating key pieces of evidence that the prosecution intended to use will potentially make it easier for a lawyer to defend their clients.
Understanding the state’s case is a good starting point
The right of discovery means that a criminal defendant and the attorney representing them have the right to review all of the evidence that the state intends to present in court ahead of time. The decision to challenge the inclusion of certain pieces of evidence could play an important role in someone’s defense strategy. Recognizing when officers may have violated someone’s rights could be an important step toward developing a viable defense strategy.