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Evidence Collection In Criminal Cases

It is a common myth that St. Lucie County criminal defendants must “prove” their innocence. If the matter goes to trial, the defendant does not have to “prove” anything. Instead, the prosecutor has the burden of proof to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; as a matter of fact, it is not uncommon for the defendant to present no evidence at all, because the presumption of innocence alone is enough to support a finding of not guilty.

Most cases do not even reach this stage, because about 90 percent of criminal cases are resolved during pretrial negotiations. Many times, the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest to a lesser-included offense; for example, misdemeanor assault is a lesser-included offense of felony assault with a dangerous weapon or assault causing serious bodily injury.

In either case, there must be evidence against the defendant, and peace officers can only obtain this evidence by adhering to very strict rules.

Search Warrants

The U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment clearly states that, before evidence can be seized, the state must obtain a search warrant based on probable cause. But until 1961, this provision had never been fully explained, especially as it pertained to non-federal law enforcement agencies. Mapp v. Ohio introduced the “exclusionary rule:” evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment cannot be used in court.

The case involved the search of a home by Cleveland police officers. The officers had a warrant to search the defendant’s residence for gambling paraphernalia. They did not seize any such items, but did seize pornographic materials, which were illegal in Ohio at the time. Moreover, the officers used very heavy-handed tactics during their search. The defendant was prosecuted, tried, and convicted for unlawful possession of pornography.

The Supreme Court later held that police had illegally obtained the pornographic reading material and set forth some specific rules for search warrants. They must be:

  • Supported by Probable Cause: Some warrants are issued upon the statements of paid informers, and the information they provide is not always reliable.
  • Specific: If officers have a warrant to search for illegal weapons in the living room, they may not seize illegal drugs they find in the basement.
  • Reasonably Executed: Police can use no more force than is absolutely necessary as they search the premises.

In later cases, such as Hudson v. Michigan in 2006, the Court backed away from the exclusionary rule, but it remains in force.

Warrantless Searches

There are exceptions to almost all rules, and there are exceptions to the exclusionary rule as well. Peace officers do not need a warrant to obtain evidence. Some common exceptions include:

  • Good Faith Reliance: If officers rely on a warrant that is later determined to be invalid, the evidence may still be admissible.
  • Plain View: For example, during a traffic stop, an officer may seize an illegal weapon on the back seat.
  • Impeachment: If the defendant claims to be a good person, the prosecutor may introduce drugs that were seized without a warrant.
  • Consent: The owner or apparent owner of property can give peace officers permission to search it.

If officers ask you for permission to search your vehicle or other property, you have the right to say “no” and demand that they get a warrant.

Partner with Knowledgeable Attorneys

At Eighmie Law Firm, P.A., we know the law and we know how to apply it to certain situations. For an aggressive defense in Port St. Lucie, contact us today. The sooner you call, the more effective your defense can be.

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