Legal Restraints on Police Actions

Legal Restraints on Police Actions
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  • 0:01 Legal Restraints
  • 2:34 Fourth Amendment
  • 4:07 Fifth Amendment
  • 6:28 Exclusionary Rule
  • 7:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Legal restraints on police actions are designed to protect individuals from abuses of police power. This lesson explains how legal restraints on police actions originate from the U.S. Constitution, and discusses abuse of police power.

Legal Restraints

Detectives from the Miami-Dade police department received a tip that Joelis Jardines was growing marijuana in his house. They sent a surveillance team to Jardines' house. After watching the house for 15 minutes and not seeing any activity, the detectives took a police dog up to Jardines' front porch. The dog was trained to detect the smell of marijuana and alerted that it did. With that information, the detectives got a search warrant. When they executed the warrant later that day, they found marijuana plants. Jardines was arrested and charged.

In court, Jardines wanted the evidence of the plants thrown out because he believed the dog sniffing his front porch was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. This issue went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and they agreed with Jardines! Are you surprised?

The United States Constitution was designed to limit the power of government while ensuring basic personal rights for American citizens. Our government is based on democratic principles, which means it allows citizens to participate while protecting their individual rights.

This is best seen through the Bill of Rights. These first ten amendments guarantee citizens certain individual liberties. These are the liberties the colonists felt were most important and had to be protected by their newly-formed government. In other words, these were the areas where government action had to be restrained.

Legal restraints are simply limits or prohibitions on certain actions. The limits can be found in our laws. Legal restraints on the police come from our Bill of Rights. They are designed to protect individual freedoms and prevent abuses of police power. An abuse of police power means the police misused their authority in some way.

For instance, our Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures means that the police couldn't search Jardines' front porch. They needed a search warrant because people's homes get special protection. The Supreme Court decided that the porch is part of Jardines' house, so they should not have let the dog sniff the porch without first getting a warrant. That was an abuse of power.

Fourth Amendment

There are all kinds of abuses of police power, but we're going to look at just a few common examples in this lesson.

Let's take a closer look at legal restraints that originate from the Fourth Amendment. Again, the Fourth Amendment is part of our Bill of Rights and provides the right against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right against arrest without probable cause.

This means the police must have probable cause to arrest or to search. There's no universal definition for probable cause, though it's commonly defined as a reasonable belief. So in order to arrest, police must have a reasonable belief that the person committed a crime. In order to search, police must have a reasonable belief that evidence of a crime would be found in the search.

Let's look at our case again. Our Supreme Court has determined that, in some special cases, the Fourth Amendment protections mean that police must obtain a warrant. This was true in Jardines' case. In most cases, police need to first show probable cause to a judge and obtain a search warrant before searching someone's home. The Miami-Dade police didn't have probable cause just from the unverified tip, or from staking out Jardines' house and seeing nothing. Their probable cause only came after they sent the dog onto his porch. That means the search came before the probable cause and is therefore an unreasonable search.

Fifth Amendment

Now let's take a look at the Fifth Amendment. This is another area related to police abuse of power. The Fifth Amendment provides several rights, including the right against self-incrimination. For the most part, this protection means you do not have to talk to the police or testify in a trial if your statements will be evidence that you committed a crime.

For example, let's say the Miami-Dade police confronted Jardines. If they ask, 'are you Joelis Jardines?' then Jardines should answer. His statement isn't evidence of a crime. If they ask, 'are you growing marijuana in there?' then Jardines has a Fifth Amendment right to not answer. This would be evidence that he's committing a crime. Note that the police can ask. That's not an abuse of police power.

That brings us to Miranda warnings. Miranda warnings are used to inform a person of his or her Fifth Amendment rights. The warnings come from a well-known U.S. Supreme Court case from the 1960s, known as Miranda versus Arizona. Through this case, the Court ruled that police must make sure a suspect knows his or her Fifth Amendment rights. If the suspect chooses to waive the rights, he or she must do so voluntarily and knowing the potential consequences.

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