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Your right to protection against illegal search and seizure: Explained

The U.S. and Wisconsin constitutions both protect you from illegal searches and seizures by the police. Both constitutions use the same language to limit law enforcement’s ability to search your person or property.

Specifically, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures” of individuals’ “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” In order to make a search reasonable, police generally (with several exceptions) must get a warrant first. The warrant must come from a judge, whom the police must convince that there is probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime exists in or at the place the police want to search.

The warrant is supposed to “particularly describe the place to be searched,” both in time and space. Generally, a warrant does not give the police the right to search the same place over and over or allow the police to extend a search to multiple properties or areas of a property without probable cause.

Why is this important?

The power of police to search you or your property is limited by the Constitution. Otherwise, officers could randomly search your home, workplace, vehicle or body whenever they wish, whether or not they have reason to believe you committed a crime. If the police obtained a proper warrant but went beyond its scope in some way, the search may have violated your rights. Your attorney could then present evidence of this violation to the judge and get some or all of the seized evidence thrown out of court.

Exceptions to the rule

Keep in mind that since the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, courts have recognized several exceptions to the search and seizure clause. For example, in Wisconsin, police are allowed to stop and frisk individuals without a search warrant. Your criminal defense attorney can explain in more detail if you have a strong claim that the police exceeded the scope of a search warrant.

For more on defense against criminal charges, please see our Wisconsin criminal defense overview.