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Understanding Search and Seizure Laws in California 

Roth Legal, A Professional Law Corporation June 1, 2023

Police officers doing a home investigation searching for evidenceWhen you’re being arrested for a crime, law enforcement officers will often perform a search and seizure of your person, your car, your home, or other personal property. Most of the time, these are done by the law and won’t violate your constitutional rights. However, there are instances where this is done incorrectly. It’s essential that you know and understand what police can and can’t do when making an arrest, and how the evidence they find can and can’t be used against you in court. 

If you’ve recently been arrested and believe you were the victim of an illegal search and seizure, you need to speak with a criminal defense attorney right away. Reach out to Roth Legal, A Professional Law Corporation to start strategizing your defense. The firm is proud to serve individuals in Modesto as well as Stockton, Manteca, Merced, and throughout California. 

Your Rights Under the Fourth Amendment   

Your Fourth Amendment rights under the Constitution protect you from “unreasonable” searches and seizures. Violations of this law happen more often than you think. Essentially, police are required to have probable cause to search you or your property. Without this, any evidence they find may be excluded from a trial due to the way it was obtained.  

Warranted Search and Seizure  

Because there are a few scenarios when police might wish to search you, you should know the circumstances under which it’s legal and when it’s illegal.  

When is a search and seizure legal?  

  • Search warrant: One clear way police can legally perform a search is when they’ve obtained a search warrant from a judge. Law enforcement must present their reasoning for needing a warrant to a judge via an affidavit, and the judge will look at this objectively to determine if it shows probable cause. 

  • Probable cause: If the officers don’t have a warrant (as is often the case with an arrest), they can still search you legally—but only if they can show probable cause. This means they must prove that the circumstances show that it’s likely a crime has been committed and if they perform a search there’s a high probability they’ll find something related to the crime. 

Valid Searches and Seizures Without Warrants  

There are exceptions to every rule, of course. You may be asking, “Can a search and seizure be legal if there is no warrant?” There may be a fair amount of gray area when it comes to performing a search, and there are certainly cases where an officer doesn’t need to have a warrant or show probable cause.

For instance, if you’re pulled over for a routine traffic stop for which the officer had a valid reason (say you were speeding), and can clearly see a firearm in your backseat, they would not need a warrant or to show probable cause because there’s not a reasonable expectation of privacy when items are in plain sight. In contrast, if the firearm was in your locked trunk, there may be a reasonable expectation of privacy.    

Understanding the Exclusionary Rule  

The last component to understand about searches and seizures has to do with what can be done with evidence after it’s obtained. It’s important to understand something called the exclusionary rule. This rule states that if evidence was obtained through an unconstitutional search, it can be suppressed and excluded from any criminal proceedings. Your defense team can help determine if certain evidence can be excluded from your trial. In some cases, this can help bring about a not-guilty verdict or have your charges dismissed completely due to a lack of evidence.  

A Defense Lawyer Can Help  

You don’t have to go through this frustrating process alone. If you’re in the Modesto, California, area and have questions about the legality of a recent arrest or search and seizure, reach out to Roth Legal, A Professional Law Corporation to discuss your options.