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What Is the Privacy Amendment?

A public restroom is a place in which people have a right to privacy.
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  • Written By: Marlene Garcia
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 02 September 2014
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The privacy amendment refers to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. It assumes people enjoy a right to privacy in certain places and protects them against invasion by government agents. The privacy amendment applies to places where there is an expectation of privacy by the general population. Police officers must show probable cause that a crime has been committed, or obtain a search warrant in some cases, to avoid violating the law.

When the privacy amendment is challenged in court, judges weigh the expectation of privacy using two tests, defined as subjective and objective. The subjective test determines whether a person truly believes he or she occupies a private place, such as a public restroom. The objective test examines whether a reasonable person under similar circumstances would expect privacy. If both tests favor a defendant, evidence gathered by law enforcement in violation of the privacy amendment is not admissible in court under the exclusionary rule.

Seizure refers to using force to restrain a citizen or take property. Under the fourth amendment, police are permitted to hold a person without an arrest warrant in an emergency situation where a person or the public might be endangered. When immediate action must be taken and there is no time to obtain a warrant, an officer does not violate the privacy amendment by restraining a citizen. The same emergency exception applies to entering a structure or vehicle without a search warrant.

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If no emergency exists, a warrant is generally needed before a search is conducted. The request for a warrant must outline circumstances that led police to believe a crime has been committed and the person under investigation committed the crime. The warrant lists the address subject to the search and specific items officers intend to seize. A judge evaluates the merits of the request before issuing a warrant or denying the request. Warrants might be signed for an arrest, a search, or both.

Two types of warrants might be served, depending on the expected circumstances. One type requires law enforcement officers to announce their presence and identify themselves. The second type permits unannounced entry if a warning might lead to the destruction of evidence, such as flushing drugs down a toilet.

While executing a search warrant, officers may seize items in plain view even if the property is not listed on the document. The plain view doctrine does not violate the privacy amendment, courts have ruled. Exceptions to the law also allow police to search a person who is being arrested, based on the need for officer safety.

The privacy amendment has undergone court challenges over the years, especially in the area of technology. Courts decided workplace computers and Internet usage at work carry no expectation of privacy. An employer who monitors computer use and imposes restrictions on Internet use does not violate the fourth amendment when he or she examines an employee’s computer.

Similar exceptions to the law exist for garbage placed outside for pickup and operating a vehicle on a public street. Vehicle checkpoints for impaired drivers are legal under the privacy amendment because the need for public safety outweighs a motorist’s expectation of privacy while in his or her vehicle. The U.S. Patriot Act relaxed some laws related to privacy to protect the public from terrorism. Government agents may search telephone, library, medical, e-mail, and financial records of U.S. citizens without a warrant when terrorism is suspected.

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