The Evolving Standard of “Unreasonable Search and Seizure”

The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution is not verbose (text below), but it is contentious, and the basis of much of criminal procedure:

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.

Several ongoing cases will test the Supreme Court’s interpretation of what constitutes an “unreasonable search”:

    • Missouri v. McNeely – A Missouri highway patrolman ordered a hospital technician to draw blood from a driver who was suspected of being intoxicated. The driver had refused consent to both a breath and blood alcohol test. This case may overturn a precedent case, Schmerber v. California (1966), in which the Supreme Court held that a State may require drivers to submit to warrantless blood alcohol tests if “exigent circumstances” exist (Schmerber involved a traffic accident which caused this exigency; no such facts exist in McNeely). Oral arguments were heard by the Supreme Court in January, 2013.
    • Florida v. Harris – The issue here is whether an alert by a drug-sniffing dog during a traffic stop constitutes sufficient probable cause for officers to search the vehicle. Arguments were heard by the Supreme Court in October, 2012.
    • Florida v. Jardines – Officers used a drug-sniffing dog at the front door of a suspected marijuana “grow house.” Is this a “search” requiring either probable cause or a warrant? Arguments were heard by the Supreme Court in October, 2012.
    • Maryland v. King – Can a state constitutionally collect and analyze DNA samples from arrestees who are charged with serious crimes? Legal briefs are being filed now.

These interesting cases may lead to new interpretations of the Fourth Amendment. No doubt that law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others will be following closely.