What is the Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that no citizen shall be subject to an unreasonable search or seizure of their person or property without a warrant backed by probable cause. A key word in that statement, however, is what constitutes an “unreasonable” search or seizure. According to the Supreme Court, the answer has to do with whether someone had a reasonable expectation of privacy. But what exactly is the reasonable expectation of privacy, and when does it protect you from a search or seizure by law enforcement?

Put simple, the reasonable expectation of privacy is the notion that there are certain places and times where you can reasonably expect to not be subjected to public scrutiny. Most commonly, this includes the inside of your own home, as well as the curtilage of your home, which may include your yard or garden as well as any shed or additional structures located on your property. It may also include your hotel room or your friend’s house, if you happen to be staying for the night.

Pieces of property are also protected by this reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, if you have a storage locker where you keep certain possessions, that is protected by the Fourth Amendment, so long as you maintain your rental agreement. Additionally, your computer or cell phone cannot be examined without a warrant, and you cannot be compelled to give up the password to your electronic devices or open them to police scrutiny without a warrant or subpoena.

However, there are countless exceptions to this basic doctrine, many of which could have an impact on whether you can be legally searched or have your property seized by the police. Most obviously, you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when out in public, at least with respect to anything you say or do while in the public eye. You also do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy while riding on public transportation, although any luggage you carry would require probable cause to justify a search.

Also, if you are at a friend’s house, unless you are staying there formally as a guest overnight, you may not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Even if you do, it may be determined that you do not have standing to contest a search or seizure of your person or property, and only your friend can do it for you. A similar principle applies if you are driving your friend’s car and get pulled over; it is your friend’s car, not yours, meaning you do not have grounds to object to a search.

On the subject of cars, there is also what is known as the automobile exception, which allows a police officer to conduct a search of your car or other motor vehicle with just probable cause, without needing to secure a warrant. This is because you could simply drive off while the officer was obtaining a warrant, and potentially dispose of any evidence of a crime that might have been within. They may also search your person to determine if you are personally carrying any contraband, provided they have probable cause to do so.

This is far from an exhaustive list of potential Fourth Amendment issues that may arise if you run afoul of the police. Even if you are completely innocent, police officers may still engage in a search or seizure that violates your constitutional rights. When that happens, you will need a criminal attorney with knowledge of Constitutional law who can defend your rights and protect you from abuse by the police.

If you or someone you know has been arrested for a criminal offense, you will need legal counsel to help you preserve your rights and work to get the best possible outcome for your matter. A New York criminal defense lawyer, who is experienced in handling criminal cases of all sorts, can advise you of your legal rights and will fight for your best interests in court. If you or your loved one has been arrested, contact the Suffolk County criminal defense attorneys at McGuire, Peláez and Bennett at (631) 348-1702.


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