Search & Seizure: Definition, Laws & Rights

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  • 0:06 Definition
  • 0:54 Fourth Amendment Rights
  • 1:57 What Is Probable Cause?
  • 2:32 Plain View
  • 3:32 Inevitable Discovery &…
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Janell Blanco
In this lesson, we will discuss the legal definition of search and seizure. The laws that pertain to search and seizure and an individual's rights will also be explored in this lesson.


Imagine someone going into your home and searching through your personal items. Your things are handled, displaced, and even seized, without your permission. Would you feel that your rights had been violated and wonder why this could happen?

While there are times when law enforcement agents can go through your home or property to look for specific things, there are a lot of rules governing the search and seizure process.

Let's begin by defining these terms. A search is a process conducted by authorized agents of the law going through part or all of individual's property, looking for specific items that are related to a crime that they have reason to believe has been committed. A seizure happens if the officers take possession of items during the search.

We've said there are rules governing searches and seizures, so let's take a look at what our rights are and how searches and seizures happen.

Fourth Amendment Rights

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

What this means is that we are protected from illegal search and seizure. Law officers cannot search your car, your house, or your personal belongings unless they have your consent, a warrant signed by a judge, probable cause, or a plain view of illegal items.

The law states that if you consent to a search, then the officers can go through your belongings and any items they find during that search can be seized as evidence against you. The same law covers warrants. An officer must show probable cause before a judge can authorize the officer to search your car, your home, or your belongings, and the warrant has to be specific about what can be searched.

What Is Probable Cause?

An officer has probable cause to perform a search and seizure if there is evidence from a crime present or the officer has the reasonable belief that a crime has been committed.

For example, if an officer pulls an individual over for speeding and smells marijuana, he then has reason to believe there's an illegal substance in the car. The officer can ask for consent to search the car and if the driver denies consent then there are other methods that can be used. For example, a specially trained K-9 dog can complete a walk around the vehicle in question. If the K-9 alerts officers, then they can search without permission.

Plain View

What if an officer stops someone and sees a knife or a gun in the person's waistband? Do you think the officer can search the person? Is this probable cause? The answer is yes. If the officer or the public are in immediate danger, the officer can legally search the individual and seize the knife or the gun because they were in plain view.

If an item is in plain view, there is no need for consents or warrants because the contraband was observed without conducting a search or without moving or manipulating other items to see it. As long as the items were in plain view and the officer did not have to enter a home or a car to see them, then the item can legally be seized. However, the officer cannot reach into a car and move a jacket on a seat to see what's under the jacket. This would be manipulating items and is not legal.

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