The fact of the matter is that the world has become a scary place, even America. We are constantly bombarded with images of criminal activity – televised arrests and legal proceedings – to the point that we may have forgotten that this isn’t a military state. We do have rights, even if they often get overlooked, and one of the single most important rights we have is guaranteed by the 4th amendment – protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
What does this mean, exactly? Well, the fact of the matter is that you cannot be harassed by law enforcement without probable cause – that would be unreasonable. Imagine that you are driving home from work after having cocktails with friends when you get pulled over. You have liquor on your breath, and the officer asks you to get out of your car. Does he have the right to search your vehicle and person? Based on the fact that you appear to be violating the law, yes, he has probable cause. However, if you were driving home sober as a judge and the same officer were to pull you over for no reason and demand to search your vehicle for no reason, he would not have the right to do so. This is the protection guaranteed by the 4th amendment.
So, what exactly is probable cause according to the 4th amendment? It is defined as “a reasonable belief that person has committed a crime.” Meaning that if you engage in suspicious behavior – such as a large flow of traffic at your home at all hours of the day and night that may lead officers to believe that drug activity was occurring – you may be giving police probable cause to search your home. However, the 4th amendment protects your home from being searched at random, for no cause at all.
Of course, probable cause is often debated in criminal cases. The fact that an officer may have a belief, even a reasonable one, that you are committing a crime doesn’t mean for a second that you are. Some believe that the 4th amendment is too broad, allowing search and seizure for no good cause at all. Alternatively, sometimes crimes are being committed with no reason to believe that they are, yet the 4th amendment prevents officers from investigating.