The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution revolves around your right to privacy. It limits the government’s ability to search you and your property or arrest you. Police can only conduct a search or arrest in certain circumstances. For instance, they can search you with your permission or a valid warrant. They can also search you if they have reasonable suspicion that you committed a crime. Finally, police can conduct a search during an emergency.
What the Fourth Amendment says.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
What the Fourth Amendment means.
The Fourth Amendment protects your privacy from the government. If officials want to search or arrest you, they usually must get a written permission from a judge. For searches, they usually need a search warrant. For arrests, they need an arrest warrant. To get a warrant, they must prove “probable cause.” This means a reasonable belief that a crime occurred and that you are the one who committed it. The protections from this amendment apply to several areas of life.
- Search. A government official can’t search you, your home and your property without a search warrant. A search includes everything from a dog sniff to electronic surveillance.
- Seizure. A government official can’t detain you without a proper warrant or other reason. The key here is whether a reasonable person would free to leave. If a police officer stops you and you don’t feel free to leave, it is likely a seizure.
- Exceptions. There are several exceptions to these general rules.
- Reasonable Suspicion. If a police officer has a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, they can do a search. In fact, they can do one without a warrant.
- Consent. Police also do not need a warrant if you agree to a search.
- Plain View. Areas that the public can see from public places are subject to search without a warrant, too. For instance, a police officer may see criminal activity through an open door or window. If they do, they do not need a warrant.
- Exigent Circumstances. There are also different rules during an emergency situation. Police officers can do searches and seizures without a warrant then as well.
How Fourth Amendment rights apply to people in prison.
Your Fourth Amendment rights face significant limits with a criminal conviction. Although you do not lose your Fourth Amendment rights in prison, they change a lot. Prison officials can generally stop and search you and your belongings as they see fit. This means reading letters, listening to phone calls and sometimes even strip searches.
This is true when you’re in jail and prison. But it is also true if you’re on probation or parole, too. Most probation and parole conditions make you to agree to searches of your home. You also may agree to drug testing and other invasions of privacy on a regular basis. There are some limits. But you do agree to give up a lot of privacy when you seek probation or parole instead of a prison sentence.
What you can do if prison officials violate your Fourth Amendment rights.
Your Fourth Amendment rights are very limited after
a conviction. But you do still have some protections. These include the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. This is true—even in prison. If prison officials violate those rights, you can file a lawsuit. For a federal prison, you will file a “Bivens claim.” For a state prison, you will file a “1983 claim.” There may be other types of lawsuits that apply as well.
There are a few common examples of searches that go too far.
- Your Person. Prison guards can search you at any time. But they cannot do it to harass you or for other improper reasons. A prison official may, for instance, search you without reason too many times. Or they may assault you during the process. If that happens, you have legal protections.
- Your Home. By going on probation, you agree to certain conditions. One of those conditions may allow your probation officer to search your home at any time. But a police officer may try to conduct that search instead of your probation officer. If that happens, the search may violate your rights.
- Your Property. A probation officer can usually search your belongings during your probation, too. However, a probation officer may not have legal authority to search your mail or phone. If they do, it could be a violation.
A criminal conviction can limit your Fourth Amendment rights. But it does not take them away. Government officials may search you, your home or your property without the right to do so. If they do, you have legal protection. People in federal custody can file a Bivens action. People in state custody can file a 1983 claim.