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How far do your privacy rights extend in criminal cases?

Jun 13, 2018 | Criminal law

Last month, the Supreme Court decided two cases that touch on individual privacy rights contained in the Fourth Amendment. One case involved a motorcycle parked in a driveway under a tarp and the other a traffic stop of a rental vehicle.

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As a refresher, the constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of your “person, home, papers and effects.” This generally means that a law enforcement officer must get a warrant before searching your home, phone or taking a blood sample. Common defenses to criminal charges are often to question whether police should have gotten a warrant and whether the so called “probable cause” contained in the application was adequate.

Why did these cases end up at the Supreme Court?

As technology advances and our culture changes around it, the courts have had to evaluate the affect on privacy rights. Does someone have to be the authorized driver to have any privacy rights when driving a car? Is a driveway included in the concept of home (the legal term curtilage)?

Answers are no and yes, respectively. And effectively extended privacy rights.

Almost every rule comes with exceptions. The gray area of the automobile exception to the warrant requirement was at issue in both cases. Interpretation of the Fourth Amendment evolves through case law that sets parameters. Even with existing case law, there are situations where existing precedent might not provide a clear answer. It takes an experienced criminal defense attorney to identify possibly improperly obtained evidence and present a strong case to exclude it.

Privacy breached

The one case involved a Virginia man arrested after police thought they identified a stolen orange-and-black motorcycle that had been involved in high speed chases under a tarp in a driveway. The other started with a traffic stop of a driver not listed as an authorized driver on a rental contract. A search of the trunk uncovered a significant quantity of heroin.

In the motorcycle case, the issue boiled down in part to where the motorcycle was parked. If it had been on the curb, the officer would not have needed a warrant. Because the motorcycle was on his girlfriend’s private property they needed to get a warrant first.

In the traffic stop case, the question was whether the driver, while not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement, had an expectation of privacy. And the justices ruled 9 – 0 that police did not have the right to search a vehicle just because the driver’s name was not on a rental policy.

Trend toward favoring individual privacy rights

These  rulings continue to favor individual privacy rights over government intrusion. This last decade, other cases have required a warrant:

  • To attach a GPS tracking device to a car
  • Search a suspect’s cellphone
  • Test a driver’s blood alcohol level by taking a blood sample

Later this term, the court will rule on whether police need a warrant to obtain wireless carrier records that reveal a suspect’s location over a period of time. Other courts to look at the issue have held that people who share information with third parties have no expectation to privacy.

In many of these cases, the distinctions are narrow. Prosecutors handle these cases on a daily basis and know the strongest arguments to force plea agreements and convictions. When charged with a crime, seek counsel from a defense attorney who can go toe-to-toe with the conviction machine and defend your future.