In the state of New York, the search and seizure of one's property such as one's car or home requires a search warrant issued by a judge or magistrate.
A search warrant gives officers the right to search the property against the owner's wishes, and seize illegal items, stolen goods or anything else that can be used as evidence of a crime. The requirement of a search warrant is guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects individuals from “unreasonable searches and seizures”. However, the amendment goes on to mention “probable cause”, which refers to a set of circumstances that indicate the probability of criminal activity. Common examples of probable cause include, but are not limited to:
Items in plain view: If an illegal or stolen item is in the backseat of your car, or some other area visible to the police officer, it's considered to be in “plain view”. This gives officers the right to search your entire vehicle since there is probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime.
Reasonable suspicion: If the officer has good reason to believe that an illegal activity is occurring, such as the smell of marijuana emanating from you car, then he or she has the right to search your vehicle without a warrant.
Search incident leads to lawful arrest: If you have been lawfully arrested, an officer may frisk you and search the immediate area surrounding you, such as your home or vehicle. This is a protective measure to ensure there is nothing on your persons or surrounding area that poses a threat to law enforcement.
Consent: If you are pulled over in a traffic stop and the officer asks to search your vehicle, you have the right to consent or refuse. If you consent, they may legally search your vehicle and seize any items that are illegal, or appear to be associated with criminal activity.
These exceptions cover a wide array of circumstances, which is why the majority of searches are done without warrants. However, a police officer must be able to show that it is more likely than not that a crime has occurred. Furthermore, if the property is searched, it is probable that he or she will find stolen goods or evidence of a crime. In addition, police officers can search and seize property when there is no “reasonable expectation of privacy”. For example, individuals have a reasonable right to privacy over their bodies, clothing or items contained within their properties. On the other hand, individuals do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over unsecured property, or property that has been stolen from someone else. Hence, no expectation of privacy is maintained for items that are in plain view or held open to the public, such as garbage left on the curb or items sitting on the hood of your car.
These circumstances may imply that officers rely solely on their judgment in determining probable cause, but it's essential to understand that a mere hunch of suspicion is not enough.
Probable cause must come from specific facts and circumstances that are within the officer's knowledge. Reasonable suspicion, for example, must come from immediate, factual circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that criminal activity may be at hand. Furthermore, the seizure of one's property without a warrant requires that immediate facts and circumstances would lead a reasonable person to believe that the item is item is stolen, illegal or indicates evidence of a crime.
As you can see, probable cause is one of the most important, yet complex legal concepts in the area of criminal law. Understanding how it applies to your specific case is the most important step in determining whether your property was illegally searched and seized. If it's proven that evidence in your case was obtained from an illegal search, it becomes subject to the Fourteenth Amendment's “exclusionary rule”, and therefore cannot be used against you in a court of law. If you believe that police had insufficient cause to search and seize your property, it's imperative that you discuss your situation with an experienced criminal law attorney.