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What is a seizure?

By Luke Heck

Under both our state and federal constitutions, we have a right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. To be free from an unreasonable search is easy for most individuals to generally understand; law enforcement, absent an exception to this requirement, cannot search you, your house, or your personal belongings without first obtaining a warrant allowing them to. But what is a seizure, let alone an unreasonable one?

Under the Fourth Amendment, a seizure occurs when an officer stops someone and restrains their freedom. So what, you are seized when you get placed in handcuffs? The short answer is no, and here is why. There are a lot of different types and levels of seizures, each of which come with their own unique legal standard.

For instance, you are "seized" when you are stopped by police for an alleged traffic violation while driving. You are also seized when a law enforcement officer detains you, meaning you are not free to leave, or when they conduct a frisk of your outer clothing to make sure you do not have any weapons. These type of seizures require the officer to have what's called "reasonable and articulable suspicion" that you committed a traffic violation, or were involved in criminal activity, or that you may be armed and dangerous. Then, of course, being placed under arrest is also a seizure. However, due to the significance of the restraint of your freedom, an officer must articulate a higher burden of proof, probable cause, in order for them to lawfully arrest you.

The Reasonable Person Standard

Simply put, to determine whether you have been seized by law enforcement, a court must determine, based on all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, whether a reasonable person would have believed that s/he was not free to leave. In other words, what the person who believes they were seized thinks is not a controlling factor. Instead, the "reasonable person" standard is what governs this decision. Now there are circumstances, such as a traffic stop or an arrest, that are undoubtedly seizures under the law. There are also some, such as an officer walking up and talking to you in a public place in a conversational manner that courts have found not to be seizures. But in situations that are not black and white, the determination of whether you were seized by police is dependent on this reasonable person standard.

This standard falls in line with the general underlying theme of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unlawful seizures: reasonableness. Let's say that everyone agrees, you were seized by law enforcement. If you have been seized, then it must be determined whether the seizure was reasonable. To be reasonable, law enforcement must have had information necessary to meet the legal standard for the type of seizure that was committed. Like was noted above, if it was a traffic stop, did the officer have reasonable suspicion to stop you for a traffic violation? If it was an arrest, probable cause was required. If the officer did not meet the necessary burden to commit the seizure, then the seizure was unlawful. If a seizure was unlawfully committed, the court's remedy is to suppress, i.e. exclude, the evidence that law enforcement obtained as a result of the illegal seizure.

Unreasonable Seizures

But that is not all. There are also circumstances where seizures that were initially reasonable can become unreasonable. A seizure is only lawful so that law enforcement can accomplish its purpose. Reasonableness governs what can and cannot happen during a legal seizure. Our courts have established two basic principles for the reasonableness of a seizure: the seizure must be reasonable in its scope and in its duration.

An example of this is a traffic stop. The purpose of the seizure would be to address the traffic violation. This means that the stop must be strictly tied to addressing the traffic violation in order to satisfy the "scope" prong of our test. If an officer turns the stop into a different type of criminal investigation, the investigation would be outside of the purpose of the stop, making it unreasonable unless the officer had reasonable suspicion to support the unrelated investigation. The same is true of the "duration" prong. The stop could not be exceeded longer than necessary to accomplish addressing the traffic offense absent reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop.

In conclusion, in order for law enforcement to stop, detain, frisk, and arrest you, their actions must be reasonable, and must be justifiable under the facts and circumstances that gave rise to their seizure of you in the first place.

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The materials available at this website are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this website or any of the links contained or produced within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between the Vogel Law Firm and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the Vogel Law Firm or any individual attorney. Under no circumstances shall the Vogel Law Firm have any liability to you for any loss or damage of any kind incurred as a result of the use of the information or your reliance on any information provided. 

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