Drug lawyers are a significant subset of the criminal defense bar. They are criminal defense lawyers who specialize and sometimes have substantial expertise in, defending drug cases. Over time, many drug lawyers become well-versed in litigating Fourth Amendment issues. Like most areas of legal specialization, drug cases often present some of the same legal issues repeatedly. Among these are search and seizure issues. Currently, many practicing drug lawyers are closely following a pending case in the United States Supreme Court. As with most search and seizure cases decided by the United States Supreme Court, this case will have a significant impact on a large number of cases currently being litigated in various courts throughout the nation.
The Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Collins v. Virginia will consider and in part, establish, new limits to the automobile exception of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated….”
Drug Lawyers Assert Constitutional Rights
This critical constitutional right has historical origins that go back hundreds of years prior to the founding of the United States, which are evidenced by many reported cases that articulated protections to the sanctity of an Englishman’s home against invasions by the Crown.
Even as recently as 2012, in United States v. Jones, the United States Supreme Court cited and discussed a pre-revolutionary war case that established the common law framework for questions of search and seizure. The case the Supreme Court referred to in Jones, Entick v. Carrington – of which, many noted constitutional scholars have stated the framers were well aware – was decided in 1765, and many legal scholars believe it to be the most direct progenitor of the Fourth Amendment that was ratified along with the rest of the United States Constitution in 1789. Entick held that the common law offered no justification for agents of the Crown entering and searching the home at will: “Every invasion of private property, be it ever so minute, is a trespass.”
In simple terms, the Fourth Amendment forbids all unreasonable governmental searches and seizures. It also holds that warrantless searches and seizures are presumptively invalid. Essentially, if the government wishes to arrest someone or search a location protected by the Fourth Amendment, they must have a judicially issued warrant. In particular, to search someone’s home, a warrant is generally required, unless exigent circumstances are present that justify and make objectively reasonable, a warrantless search.
An important and frequently utilized exception to the warrant requirement is the automobile exception. This exception was created in 1925 when the Supreme Court considered the issue of whether a warrantless search of an automobile for alcohol was constitutional. In Carroll v. United States, the lawyers challenging the search asserted that the warrantless search of their client’s vehicle was unconstitutional and invalid. The issue was simple – or so they thought. They asserted that when government agents searched their client’s vehicle without having previously obtained a valid warrant, the Fourth Amendment was violated, and all evidence obtained during the illegal search must be suppressed. The United States Supreme Court disagreed, and for the first time, the Supreme Court established the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment.
The Supreme Court justified its ruling based on the unique capabilities of the automobile. The Supreme Court reasoned that while a search warrant is entirely appropriate for a dwelling, house, or other structure, the movable nature of an automobile enables it to quickly be put out of reach of a warrant, and thus, establishes an exigency that justifies the warrantless search. Therefore, in Carroll, the Court established an exception to the warrant requirement for automobiles that allows searches of vehicles that are supported by probable cause.
As indicated above, the search at the center of the dispute in Collins involves the automobile exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. Collins’ arrest and prosecution stemmed from a search of a motorcycle located under a tarp and stored in his yard. The motorcycle was located within a partially enclosed structure just a few feet from his house – thus clearly within the curtilage of his home. At issue in this important, soon to be decided, case is whether the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment allows the search of a vehicle parked within a home’s curtilage, and critically, without any finding of exigency to justify the warrantless entry onto the curtilage to conduct the warrantless search.
Search and Seizure Issues
Across the nation, drug lawyers litigate issues similar to those presented in Collins on a daily basis. In fact, litigating search and seizure issues is one of the most important skills a criminal defense lawyer, or those lawyers who specialize in defending drug cases – drug lawyers, can possess. Litigating constitutional rights is an essential part of the job. Unfortunately, sometimes people view cases that are dismissed for constitutional violations as being thrown out based on what they perceive to be a “technicality.” I believe that view to be shortsighted. The Framers of the Constitution enacted several critical guarantees to limit governmental power in relation to the individual.
Drawing upon their Anglo-Saxon common law heritage, as well as their recent experiences with agents of the Crown, the men who drafted the Constitution explicitly established certain lines that the government may not cross when dealing with citizens of the United States. These constitutional rights protect us in our interactions with an immensely powerful government. Therefore, when a drug lawyer or any other type of criminal defense lawyer litigates and seeks to have his client’s rights under the Constitution asserted, he is simply demanding that the Constitution’s guarantees be applied – as is entirely proper – in this particular case. Regardless of wealth, status, societal position, race, or religious affiliation, the guarantees of the Constitution apply equally to all Americans.