What Can the Government Do?
Before you can think about security against the government, you need to know lawenforcement’s capabilities and limitations. The government has extraordinary abilities — it’sthe best-funded adversary you’ll ever face. But the government does have limits. It mustdecide whether it is cost-effective to deploy its resources against you. Further, lawenforcement officers have to follow the law, and most often will try to do so, even if onlybecause there are penalties associated with violating it. The first and most important law for our purposes is the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The Fourth Amendment
Protecting People from Unreasonable Government Searches and SeizuresThe 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 noWarrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, andparticularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."A
occurs when the government takes possession of items or detains people.A
is any intrusion by the government into something in which one has a reasonableexpectation of privacy.Some examples of searches include: reaching into your pockets or searching through your purse; entering into your house, apartment, office, hotel room, or mobile home; andexamining the contents of your backpack or luggage. Depending on the facts, eavesdroppingon your conversations or wiretapping of your communications can also constitute a searchand seizure under the Fourth Amendment.The Fourth Amendment requires searches and seizures to be "reasonable", which generallymeans that police must get a search warrant if they want to conduct a legal search or seizure,although there are exceptions to this general rule. If a search or seizure is "unreasonable" andthus illegal, then police cannot use the evidence obtained through that search or seizure in acriminal trial. This is called the
and it is the primary incentive againstgovernment agents violating your Fourth Amendment rights.
A few important things to remember:
The Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable searches whether or notyou are a citizen. In particular, the exclusionary rule applies to all criminal defendants,including non-citizens. However, the exclusionary rule does not apply in immigrationhearings, meaning that the government may introduce evidence from an illegal searchor seizure in those proceedings.
The Fourth Amendment applies whenever the government — whether local, stateor federal — conducts a search or seizure. It protects you from an unreasonablesearch or seizure by any government official or agent, not just the police.
The Fourth Amendment does not protect you from privacy invasions by peopleother than the government, even if they later hand over what they found to the