No matter how adamantly the police pursue evidence to close drug cases, the laws of search and seizure apply to everyone universally, including people who are accused of drug-related crimes. Every American citizen and legal resident has a right to a reasonable amount of personal privacy that cannot be invaded unless the police have a well-defined warrant or an obvious circumstantial justification. Just because you are suspected or have been accused of a drug crime does not give them the right to go through your home or your car. However, if you suspect that the police have or might perform an illegal search and seizure, it’s important to know the laws. In Maine, unreasonable searches are prohibited under Section 5 of the state constitution.
Warrant vs No Warrant
In most cases, an officer needs a warrant to search your home, vehicle or personal property or do anything other than an over-the-clothes weapons frisk of your person under limited circumstances. Warrants in Maine must be issued with a specific location, scope and goal in mind and searches that exceed those parameters are illegal. Therefore, if an officer has a warrant that allows them to search your car, but not your house, anything they find and seize in the garage near the car (that was not illegal and in plain sight) is inadmissible and they must seek another warrant to search or seize.
There are, however, a myriad of circumstances that allow an officer to perform searches without a warrant. These exceptions, known as exigent circumstances, may include when officers have a verifiable reason (probable cause) to believe that someone is in danger, that a crime is actively being committed, or evidence is at risk of being destroyed by someone they have probable cause to believe committed a crime. The first two exceptions are in place to allow officers to do things like free a captive from private property or stop a robbery while the last one is to preserve evidence critical to the anticipated prosecution of the target of the search. Search and seizure law is very complex and requires an experienced criminal lawyer to properly analyze a case.
Probable Cause vs Reasonable Suspicion
These two terms sound very similar and are lingistic synonyms, but legally the difference matters a lot. Fortunately for protection from search and seizure, an officer is required to have probable cause that the person will soon commit a crime, is committing a crime or has committed a crime in the past and that evidence will be found in the place to be searched. In order for probable cause to exist, the officer has to have a logical belief supported by facts and circumstances that a normal person could understand and agree to. A good example is seeing an upturned trashcan under a broken window or hearing people call for help.
Reasonable suspicion, on the other hand, relies on the officer’s training and experience to determine whether or not crime or intent to do crime is present. For instance, an officer may have come to associate a nervous mannerism as common in shoplifters. Under reasonable suspicion, they can stop and question a nervous shopper, but they can only frisk if they have reason to suspect weapons. Officers cannot undertake a full blown search or arrest someone without clearer probable cause of a crime.
Plain View Seizure
The final form of search and seizure is plain view. If an officer sees something illegal, they have to take and report it and this law remains valid everywhere an officer could reasonably go. This means that if you invite them into your home and they see guns or drugs on a table, they have to seize and respond. However, if they illegally search your home without probable cause and find something illegal, that evidence is not admissible. This rule also applies to possible evidence of crimes, but justifying something as possible evidence also requires probable cause.
If you are involved in a drug case and are worried about illegal search & seizure, the best thing you can do is to remain as calm as possible and politely refuse consent to search and insist on a search warrant. The legal protections are most sympathetic to ‘normal’ people trying to live their lives without getting trampled over by the police. If you prefer to maintain your privacy, as many people do, stay polite and speak to the police outside your home with the door closed behind you. For more legal advice on drug cases in Maine, please contact us today.