Privacy at Work: Constitutional Rights at the Office
Illegal Searches & Seizure Overview – When Is a Warrant Needed?
All citizens enjoy the constitutional right against illegal searches and seizures which is protected by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I Section VIII of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The US and Pennsylvania Constitutions consider all searches done without a search warrant illegal unless certain characteristics exist such as exigent circumstances, or the Plain View Doctrine. In most other cases police officer needs a search warrant to search your home. At work, however, you don’t enjoy the same constitutional rights even if you work for the government at the state, local, or federal level. Remember that your constitutional rights only apply in situations where a government agent is conducting the search of you or your belongings.
Search and seizure can be a major issue in any cases involving illegal drugs, narcotics, firearms and even DUI/DWI. It is is explained at length in all of my free books.
Government Agents & Searches
Where there is no government agent there is a very strong possibility a court will find the search permissible and all of the evidence obtained from the search admissible at trial. The purpose of the fourth amendment is to protect citizens from unwarranted government intrusion and so if there is no government actor, there is no 4th Amendment violation issue. The only exception is in cases where private security or agents maintain broader arrest powers and the ability to hold suspects for government law enforcement. These situations may apply to private security guards who detain shoplifting suspects, corporate security officers who protect corporate property, and some college security.
Government Work Places & Searches – Probable Cause vs. Reasonable Suspicion
In the case of government work environments, courts will evaluate the warrantless search of an employee’s desk, filing cabinets, lockers, or any other container using a reasonableness standard as opposed to probable cause evidentiary standard. The Supreme Court has consistently held that government employers and supervisors do not need a search warrant if the search of employees work space is reasonable. The court has applied the standard because employees have a reduced expectation of privacy at work and the employer must maintain an environment which allows the office to function efficiently and without unnecessary distractions.
How Courts Will Evaluate Searches at Government Work Place
Courts will evaluate all searches of a government employees’ work space using a three step analysis’: (1) the employee’s relationship to the item seized, (2) whether the item was in the immediate control of the employee when it was seized, and (3) whether the employee took actions to maintain his/her privacy in the items.
In most situations courts will find a search of an employees workspace permissible and only find the search illegal if the defense can establish that law enforcement directed the search evidentiary standard. The bottom line is that you don’t have the same constitutional right at the office that you have at home or in your car.