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Supreme Court to focus on 4th Amendment search/seizure issue

The U.S. Constitution directly addresses citizens' rights in the face of governmental search-and-seizure actions.

Paramount American law is set forth in the Constitution's 4th Amendment, with that provision stating that people have a legal right "to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures."

That amendment further states that warrants executed by a magistrate allowing for state action to proceed must be preceded by "probable cause" and be sufficiently descriptive of the subject matter being addressed.

That language and its detailed requirements have led to legions of criminal law cases over centuries that test the precise meaning and limits of police powers regarding search-and-seizure matters. Authorities routinely contend that they stringently follow every legal requirement in 4th Amendment cases. And criminal defense attorneys often argue just as forcefully in contesting that assertion where they see violations of the law.

As with many areas of the law, exceptions apply that can render disputes even more problematic than might otherwise be the case. For example, police are customarily given some license to proceed without a warrant when they can reasonably indentify so-called "exigent" circumstances that make quick warrantless action necessary. A gunshot might suffice, for example, or a clear indication that relevant criminal evidence is being destroyed.

An impending case before the U.S. Supreme Court addresses one particular exception that authorities sometimes cite, namely, warrant requirements for vehicle searches in some instances. Police often contend that an automobile must be quickly searched for contraband or other criminal evidence, owing to some alleged inherent danger or possibility that a driver might flee and/or destroy evidence.

The case the court will hear pertains to a warrantless police search of a motorcycle parked on private property. As is true with many SCOTUS matters, the material facts are notably interesting. We spotlight the case for our readers in California and elsewhere in our next blog post.

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