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Understanding Search and Seizure Laws in Nebraska

Greg Nelson Attorney at Law April 25, 2024

If you live in Nebraska, it's important to know your rights regarding searches and seizures by the government. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution can help shield you against unfair intrusions. In short, it states that the government can't search or take your belongings without reason and within specific procedures. 

But understanding these rights can be tricky, especially when the situation isn’t black and white. Fortunately, I can break down what you need to know about search and seizure laws in Omaha, Nebraska.

At Greg Nelson Attorney at Law, I will use my experience to help you understand when the police have probable cause to search you, even if they don't have a warrant. 

Your Rights Under the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment protects American citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. It is a crucial component of the Bill of Rights and is widely recognized as one of the most fundamental protections of individual freedom.

The Fourth Amendment requires law enforcement to have a warrant to conduct a search or a seizure. It must be based on probable cause and must particularly describe the place to be searched or the persons or things to be seized. 

This constitutional protection applies to the enforcement of local statutes and ordinances, and it safeguards individuals from both state and federal violations. However, the application of this right is not without its exceptions.

For example, individuals have the right to privacy in some places but not in others, and the privacy levels vary based on the circumstances. Your understanding of these rights, how they are upheld, and potential exceptions is critical. 

Here are examples illustrating where privacy is expected and where it is limited: 

  • Homes and Personal Property: The highest expectation of privacy exists within an individual's home and personal property. This includes dwellings, personal vehicles, and personal electronic devices such as computers and phones. Law enforcement requires a warrant to enter and search a person's home without their consent. Warrantless searches are heavily scrutinized. 

  • Public Spaces: Individuals have a reduced expectation of privacy in public spaces. This includes streets, parks, and open businesses. In these areas, law enforcement can observe, follow, and in certain circumstances, search individuals in a public place without a warrant. 

  • Workplaces: Privacy expectations are moderate in workplaces. Employers can often search company-owned devices and spaces without a warrant but may have limitations on searching the personal belongings of their employees. For example, an employer can check an employee's work email but may need consent to search an employee's personal bag. 

  • Schools: Students in public schools have limited privacy rights. School officials can search students' lockers and personal belongings if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will yield evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school. 

The Fourth Amendment's protections are highly situational and can change depending on different settings and circumstances.

Warranted Search and Seizure

When a search or seizure is conducted under a warrant, the warrant must be issued by a neutral and detached magistrate based on probable cause presented by law enforcement. This probable cause must explicitly state the specific locations to be searched and the items to be seized. 

Important Considerations for Warrants in Nebraska: 

  • The requirement for specificity is high. Vague or overbroad warrants can be challenged in court. 

  • Nebraska courts will presume an outstanding warrant's validity, placing the burden of proof on the defendant to establish that the warrant was defective. 

  • The scope of the search must align with the parameters of the warrant. Any items seized outside of these confines could be inadmissible. 

  • Even with a valid warrant, law enforcement must use appropriate methods, limiting injury or destruction, particularly in no-knock warrants that must provide specific and compelling justifications. 

Valid Searches and Seizures Without Warrants

While warrants provide a clear framework, there are instances where law enforcement can legally search or seize without one. One of the most recognized justifications for a warrantless search is consent—the individual voluntarily and knowingly waives their Fourth Amendment right by granting permission.

Other lawful searches include those conducted as incidents to lawful arrests or during exigent circumstances, such as when officers reasonably believe there is an immediate threat to safety or the destruction of evidence is imminent. 

Understanding Warrantless Searches in Nebraska: 

  • Consent must be free from coercion, voluntary, and informed. 

  • Warrantless search and seizure during an arrest can only involve the immediate vicinity for officer safety or to prevent the destruction of evidence. The arrest must be lawful for the subsequent search to be valid. 

  • Exigent circumstances must be objectively reasonable and require swift action. 

  • An individual's expectation of privacy is a fundamental factor in assessing the lawfulness of warrantless searches. 

Understanding the Exclusionary Rule

The exclusionary rule is a legal doctrine that underscores the Fourth Amendment. It asserts that evidence obtained in violation of the Constitution cannot be used in a court of law, serving to deter law enforcement from engaging in unlawful searches and seizures.

The exclusionary rule's principles are designed to ensure the lawfulness of law enforcement behavior is of paramount importance. 

How the Exclusionary Rule Operates in Nebraska:

  • When evidence is suppressed, it can fundamentally impact the prosecution's case or even lead to its dismissal if the suppressed evidence is crucial to the charge. 

  • The “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine extends suppression not only to the original violation but also to any evidence derived from it. 

  • Exceptions to the exclusionary rule exist, such as the good faith exception, allowing the use of evidence even if the search was later found to be defective, as long as the officers acted in the honest belief that their conduct was lawful. 

  • The exclusionary rule does not apply to private parties, and evidence they obtain unlawfully can often still be used in court. 

The law is not static; it is continually subject to interpretation and application in light of changing societal contexts and evolving legal precedents. Understanding how the law is likely to play out in real-world scenarios can be enlightening for those concerned about their rights regarding searches and seizures. 

Take Legal Action

Search and seizure laws are complex. They embody a balance of law enforcement responsibilities and individual rights.

For Nebraskans, it is critical to be informed, vocal, and vigilant in defending these rights. Lawful searches and seizures are a necessary part of maintaining public safety, but protecting citizens against abuses and errors remains equally important.  

Whether you're a routine citizen affected by a search or a legal professional navigating the nuances of these rules, the clarity provided in this article is intended to bolster your understanding and, by extension, your ability to uphold and serve justice within our state.

Reach out to me, Greg Nelson, today for support. I serve those across the state of Nebraska, including Omaha, Sarpy County, Saunders County, Dodge County, and Washington Count.