A search and seizure is a legal procedure in which law enforcement officers perform a search of an individual’s personal effects and seize any items found that are considered as evidence in a crime. Consider the following definitions, provided by a search and seizure guide created by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):
- Search. A search is performed when a person’s subjective expectation of privacy is infringed upon.
- Seizure. A seizure of property occurs when there is a meaningful interference with an individual’s interest in possession of said property. A seizure of person may also occur, which refers to a situation in which a person is led to believe that they are not free to leave, and that belief is founded on the fact that a police officer has demonstrated force or show of authority.
In regards to the former – a search – the definition reads that a person’s “subjective expectation of privacy” is breached. In other words, a “search” does not occur simply because a police officer looks at a person, glances in through an open doorway of a home while speaking with a person, or notices something on the front seat of a vehicle when making a traffic stop. Rather, a search only occurs if privacy is actually infringed upon (assuming that that person’s expectation of privacy is reasonable by societal standards). As such, an officer opening drawers while within an individual’s home, opening the trunk of their vehicle, or asking them to turn out their pockets may all be considered “searching” as it relates to search and seizure laws.
To summarize the question of “what is a search and seizure?” succinctly, then, consider that there are three components that must be met in order for a search or seizure to occur, whether legally or illegally. First, there must be the presence of a government agent (typically a police officer); second, the government agent must make an intrusion; and third, this intrusion must be upon an individual’s protected privacy or interests. If these three components are not met, then no search has occurred.
Legal Requirements for Conducting a Search
In order for an officer to conduct a search of your home, the officer must have a warrant. In order for a warrant to be granted, the officer must have probable cause. In a later part of this guide – Fourth Amendment and Your Right to Protection – warrants and probable cause will be discussed more.
While most people think of search and seizure laws in regards to a home or private dwelling, keep in mind that there are search and seizure laws for nearly all types of property. For example, when an officer can search your vehicle may vary from when an officer can search your home. Also remember that land, businesses, and any other personal property may be subject to search, as well as seizure. This includes things as large as multi-story buildings and as small as cellphones.
Also keep in mind that often times, an officer will ask you if they can search your personal items or home before they actually have a warrant. You do not have to consent to a request to search.