The Constitution protects all citizens from unreasonable and unlawful police conduct. Unfortunately, not all police officers handle searches, seizures, and arrests reasonably and lawfully. However, if you or a loved one suffered losses due to an illegal search and seizure, you do not have to stand for it. You could have a civil rights case against the relevant police department and receive an illegal search and seizure lawsuit settlement.
Cases of police misconduct can be complex and challenging to litigate. However, if your civil rights have been violated, Morgan & Morgan is here for you. Our experienced and determined civil rights lawyers could help you seek damages for healthcare expenses, wage loss, and others. Contact us now for a free case review to identify your legal options.
What Is Illegal Search and Seizure?
An illegal search and seizure occur when law enforcement conducts a search without authorization or legal basis. According to the Legal Information Institute (LLI), a search and seizure qualifies as unreasonable when conducted without a search warrant or probable cause. Evidence collected as a result of the illegal search and seizure is not admissible in court.
The Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution explicitly protects citizens from unlawful searches and seizures that happen without a warrant, without consent, and without probable cause. The amendment protects citizens from unwarranted government intrusion into “their persons, houses, papers, and effects.”
What Is a Warrant?
A search warrant legally authorizes police officers to search a particular area or premises and seize specific items. Officers must show probable cause that either a crime was committed or that they expect to find evidence for a crime. To obtain a warrant, law enforcement officers must give sworn statements. Officers must clearly define the area they will search and the items they want to seize. A judge or magistrate typically issues warrants.
When Is a Search Warrant Valid?
A valid search warrant has to meet the following requirements:
- A law enforcement officer filed the warrant in good faith.
- It must show probable cause.
- An impartial magistrate must have issued the document.
- The warrant must clearly state the area to be searched and items to be seized.
Law Enforcement Can Search and Seize Without Warrants
There are limited circumstances in which police officers can search and seize without a valid warrant.
Police officers do not require a warrant if you permit the search. Consent must be given freely and voluntarily.
During a lawful arrest, police officers can search the individual and nearby area for weapons and other items.
Officers can seize items without a warrant if they see evidence in plain view while lawfully at a location.
Emergencies and Hot Pursuit
In emergencies, for example, when lives are endangered or crucial evidence may get destroyed, police officers have the right to search. Law enforcement can also enter and search your home legally during the pursuit of a fleeing criminal.
During a legal traffic stop, police officers may, in some instances, use drug detection dogs or pat-down car occupants without probable cause that a crime has taken place.
While there are legal ways that officers can conduct a search without a warrant, there are also many gray areas. Law enforcement officers can overstep the mark or even abuse their powers. If this has happened to you, and you suffered negative consequences as a result, consider consulting with our legal team. We can help determine if a search or seizure was conducted legally or illegally and whether you qualify for compensation.
What Qualifies as Probable Cause?
"Probable cause" is the legal standard that allows police officers to conduct a search and seizure or arrest an individual. Probable cause exists when facts point to a crime having taken place or evidence to exist at a location. For a magistrate to issue a search warrant, law enforcement must establish probable cause.
You Could Have a Police Misconduct Case
If you were subjected to an illegal search and seizure by law enforcement, you could have legal recourse against the government and sue for damages. However, the legal issues around illegal search and seizure are complex. Understanding whether you have a valid claim can be challenging. To have a police misconduct case, the following elements must exist:
- You experienced an illegal search and seizure
- A government representative, such as a law enforcement officer, must have performed the illegal activity
- You suffered an injury and damages as a result of the unlawful search and seizure
Even when all these elements are satisfied, you may not be able to sue the government for damages. Therefore, it is crucial to speak with an attorney to determine whether you could file a claim and pursue damages.
Victims of Illegal Search and Seizure Could Receive Compensation
If you suffered damages from an illegal search and seizure, you could seek the same types of compensation that victims can pursue in personal injury claims. Compensation will depend on the extent of your injury or financial losses and can include awards for:
- Medical treatments
- Psychological counseling
- Loss of wages
- Emotional distress
- Physical pain and discomfort
- Lost business revenue
- Lost employment
- Reputation damage
Examples of Illegal Search and Seizure Settlements
Individuals subjected to illegal search and seizure could receive compensation if they suffered damages such as financial losses due to police misconduct. Those who can successfully prove unlawful police misconduct could be entitled to significant settlements. Examples of notable recent illegal search and seizure settlements include:
- A North Carolina man collected a settlement from the city of Winston-Salem after suffering damages due to an illegal search and seizure traffic stop in 2012. As a result of the unlawful search, the man was convicted on felony charges and received a prison sentence of six to eight years. The North Carolina Court of Appeals dismissed the charges, stating that the law enforcement officer had neither consent nor probable cause to search the vehicle.
- The police department in Dunwoody, Georgia, settled a number of civil rights lawsuits involving illegal searches in recent years, including settlements for $112,000 and $52,000 for illegal search and seizure during traffic stops. Both incidents involved the same law enforcement officer.
- The City of Chicago settled an illegal search and seizure case with the plaintiffs for $147,500 in 2016.
There are many more instances of plaintiffs having successfully sued local government entities and obtained compensation for damages suffered due to illegal searches and seizures. If you experienced an unjust conviction and damages based on illegally obtained evidence, Morgan & Morgan could help you fight for compensation.
Wrongful Arrest and Imprisonment
Illegal search and seizure can potentially lead to wrongful arrest. If a police officer arrested you without probable cause or a warrant after an unlawful search or seizure, they might have wrongfully arrested you.
If you are charged with a crime due to an illegal search and arrest, you can ask the court to exclude the evidence obtained through the arrest and search. You could have a criminal conviction overturned if your arrest was based on unlawfully gathered evidence.
You could also sue the police for damages and file a complaint if you are the victim of a wrongful arrest.