Searches And The 4th Amendment: A Guide For The Layman

Posted on: 23 February 2016

The fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects every American's civil right to be secure against unreasonable searches of their person and homes. Many people may not fully understand their rights under the fourth amendment and how the courts deal with this issue. Here is a more detailed look at this critical legal topic.


The 4th amendment says that law enforcement officers may conduct searches as long as they have a search warrant signed by a judge. The warrant is issued when a judge is convinced that the officer has probable cause to suspect that evidence of illegal activity will be found. Over the years the courts have ruled that searches may take place in other cases also. For example, if an officer has probable cause to believe that someone has just committed a crime, such as robbing a bank, the officer may search that person.


A key issue in regards to the 4th amendment and searches is consent. The right to be protected against unreasonable searches does not apply if you consent to the search. For instance, if the police come to your home and you invite them to come in, then typically any evidence of a crime that they find can be used against against you in trial. 

The consent issue also applies to vehicle searches. Even if an officer stops you for a traffic violation and does not have probable cause to search the vehicle, he may ask to do so anyway. You have the right to refuse to consent to the search. If you do consent, then any incriminating evidence the officer discovers can be used in court, regardless of whether the office had probable cause. 

Private Guard 

An important point regarding the 4th amendment is that it only applies to government agents. It does not apply to enforcement agents employed by private companies. This means that a search that might be unconstitutional if carried out by a police officer might be acceptable if performed by a private security guard. 

For instance, if a security guard at a mall searches your backpack without your consent and finds illegal drugs, the evidence can be used against you in court. If the search had been conducted by a police officer, the evidence would probably be thrown out. 

Whether a search of your person, vehicle or home violates the Constitution is a complex area of the law. If you feel you have been victimized by an unreasonable search, contact an experienced civil rights lawyer