Does the Fourth Amendment protect all searches?

No. Before a court will even entertain the possibility that the search in question was unreasonable, the person being searched must have had a legitimate expectation of privacy. To determine whether the defendant had a legitimate expectation of privacy the courts will look at the following factors: (1) did the person subjectively or actually expect some degree of privacy, and (2) is the person’s expectation objectively reasonable, that is, one that society is willing to recognize?

EXAMPLE #1

The police install a hidden video camera in the shower area of a local fitness club. Most people who use the shower in their fitness club have a subjective expectation of privacy. Privacy in a shower area is an expectation that society is willing to recognize. Therefore, the installation of a hidden camera by the police in a fitness club’s shower area will be considered a search and subject to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of reasonableness.

EXAMPLE #2

While John is making a telephone call in a glass enclosed phone booth; he places a bag of cocaine on top of the phone. A police officer walking by notices the bag and arrests John for possession of a controlled substance. At trial, John tries to argue that the search of the phone booth was unreasonable because the officer lacked a warrant. This argument will fail because the court will never even get to the reasonableness of the search.

When police find a bag of cocaine on the top of a phone in a phone booth, it is not a search for Fourth Amendment purposes. It is very unlikely that John would think that a public phone booth is a private place, and even if John did, society is not willing to extend the protections of privacy to public pay phones.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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