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A Brief Lesson On Search and Seizure Laws

Everyone has heard terms like "search warrant" and "probable cause" when hearing about collection of evidence. But unless you have studied the law you may not be clear on what these terms mean. Today I'd like to offer a few brief explanations about the laws to help everyone understand them better. Then I'd like to share a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling which relates to these laws.

American citizens are protected against illegal searches and property seizures under the 4th amendment to the constitution. If police suspect you of a crime such as drug possession, the law requires that they obtain a warrant before searching your home, vehicle, or your body for the drugs.

A warrant is a legal document, signed by a judge, which authorizes the police to do a search. If evidence is obtained without a warrant it cannot be used against you in court. If this law wasn't in place, a police officer could search you at any time for any reason and charge you with any evidence he found.

There are only a couple situations in which police do not need a warrant to do a search. An important (and sometimes abused) exception is called the community caretaker exception. Police can enter a home without a warrant if they believe that someone is in danger or needs help. If they happen to find drugs or illegal activity during entry, those things can be used as evidence in court.

Recently the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman who was charged with DUI after police used the community caretaker exception to illegally enter her boyfriend's home. Police in Marquette County were responding to a report of a hit-and-run accident. They eventually found the driver's vehicle parked at a house a few miles from the scene. The woman in the accident had driven to her boyfriend's house to sleep. After knocking and receiving no answer, the police entered the home and arrested the woman.

The police had no warrant for her arrest and they tried to use the community caretaker exception to justify their entrance into the home. Because the police could not prove that there was reason to suspect that someone needed their help, the search was deemed illegal and the state Supreme Court ruled that the evidence was not usable.

This case shows how police sometimes try to gather evidence first and ask questions later. Warrants are an important tool for citizens to protect themselves against police corruption.

Source: State Bar of Wisconsin online, "Appeals courts reel in community caretaker function, clarify law for vehicle searches," January 2011

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