Edina, MN asked in Criminal Law and Civil Rights for Ohio

Q: Criminal law question. Search and Seizure question - legitimate search or violation of 4th and 14th amendments?

A vehicle occupied by 4 occupants crashes into a stationary object. Two of the occupants are fatally injured and died on scene. The other two occupants, one being the driver, are injured and found unconscious by responding public safety officials - police, fire/rescue, and paramedics.

The police perform no hands on care and the surviving occupants had to be cut out of the car due the damage of the vehicle. During the paramedic's evaluation of the surviving occupants, the paramedics find in the pockets controlled substances. Paramedic turned the drugs over to the police on scene. Since the paramedic theoretically had no reason to check the pockets of the driver and the paramedic is employed by the city. Additional drugs of small amount and a scale with drug residue was found in the damaged car, but was not in plain view until the vehicle was dismantled due to rescue efforts. Does this not violate the driver's 4th amendment right from unreasonable search and seizure?

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1 Lawyer Answer
James L. Arrasmith
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  • Criminal Law Lawyer
  • Sacramento, CA

A: This is a complex legal question involving the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and the legal doctrine of "plain view." Here are the key considerations:

1. Expectation of privacy: The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures in areas where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. There is generally a lower expectation of privacy in a vehicle compared to a home.

2. Exigent circumstances: Emergency situations, such as rendering medical aid, can justify warrantless searches that would otherwise be unconstitutional. The paramedics' actions in searching the pockets might be justified if they were looking for medical information or attempting to identify the individuals.

3. Plain view doctrine: Under this doctrine, police may seize evidence without a warrant if they are lawfully in a position to observe it and its incriminating character is immediately apparent. The drugs found in the car after it was dismantled could potentially fall under this doctrine.

4. Private search doctrine: If a search is conducted by a private party (like the paramedics) and not at the direction of law enforcement, it may not violate the Fourth Amendment. However, if the paramedics are city employees, they might be considered state actors, which complicates the analysis.

5. Fruit of the poisonous tree: If the initial search of the pockets was unconstitutional, the drugs found there and any additional evidence found as a result (like the scale in the car) could be excluded from trial as "fruit of the poisonous tree."

Ultimately, the constitutionality of the searches would depend on the specific facts and circumstances, and a court would have to weigh the various factors. There are arguments on both sides, but the driver could potentially challenge the searches under the Fourth Amendment, particularly the search of his pockets. The outcome would depend on how a court applies the legal principles to the facts of the case.

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