Let’s say that you are driving and a police car pulls you over. The officer asks you to turn over your bag so he or she can search it. You hesitate – after all, you do not want to provide any evidence that might incriminate you, even if you have done nothing wrong.
You have certain rights when it comes to police searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment restricts law enforcement officers from grabbing and searching your bag, whether this is a backpack, purse or wallet. However, it does not protect you completely.
The Fourth Amendment: What to know
The U.S. Constitution protects you from unlawful invasions of privacy by law enforcement figures. The Fourth Amendment, which is the section of the Constitution that addresses search and seizure, stipulates that the police must have probable cause that a crime is in place before taking and looking inside your belongings. If the police do not have probable cause, they must obtain a search warrant from a judge.
When searches are reasonable and unreasonable
If the cop who pulls you over happens to see drug paraphernalia, controlled substances or an open container in plain view in your car, they have probable cause to arrest you and search your vehicle. Your bag or wallet, though, is a different story. If the officer has probable cause to believe that it contains a weapon or contraband, they have the right to search it.
However, many defendants and courts have ruled in individual cases that a law enforcement officer’s decision to search a bag was unconstitutional. If you are arrested and charged with a crime because of evidence that police found in your bag, then you might still have a chance to get your charges dismissed or receive reduced charges or an acquittal. Defendants sometimes find success by arguing that the search and seizure violated their Fourth Amendment rights, as evidence obtained through unlawful search and seizure is not admissible in court.