The United States Constitution provides the foundation for the rights that protect all U.S. citizens from intrusive law enforcement practices. These rights should be exercised by everyone in all circumstances, regardless of whether or not an individual is guilty of a crime. Rights are like muscles -- if they are not exercised, they wither away.

RULES OF THUMB

Never leave anything in plain view: Although law enforcement officers must obtain a warrant before they can conduct a privacy-invading search, any illicit material that can be plainly seen by any person from a non-intrusive vantage point is subject to confiscation. An arrest and a valid warrant to search the rest of the area is likely to ensue. A "roach" in the ashtray, a pipe or baggie on the dashboard or coffee table, or a joint being smoked in public are common mistakes that can lead to prosecution.

Never put anything incriminating into the trash: Various courts have ruled that law enforcement officers are allowed to rummage through curbside trash bags without a warrant. A few seeds or stems can then be used as a basis for obtaining a warrant to search the individual's home.

In fact, anything discarded into the public domain can be picked up by the police and used as evidence. For example, if an individual throws an illicit substance out of his or her car window and a police officer sees it and picks it up, the person is almost certain to be arrested.

NEVER CONSENT TO A SEARCH: Most individuals arrested on marijuana charges could have avoided the arrest by exercising their Fourth Amendment rights. If a law enforcement officer asks permission to search, it is usually because: (1) there is not enough evidence to obtain a search warrant; or (2) the officer does not feel like going through the hassle of obtaining a warrant.

Law enforcement officers are trained to intimidate people into consenting to searches. If an individual does consent, the officer can -- and will -- conduct the search without a warrant. If the officer finds any contraband, the person will be arrested. Moreover, the validity of the evidence will almost definitely hold up in court because consenting to a search essentially amounts to handing the evidence to the officer and saying, "Here it is -- arrest me."

If an individual does not consent, the officer must either release the person or detain the person and attempt to get a warrant. The fact that an individual refuses to consent does not give the officer grounds to obtain a warrant.

"I do not consent to a search of my person, belongings, home, or vehicle. I retain my Fourth Amendment rights and all other rights under the United States Constitution. I will say nothing until my attorney is present."

If the officer conducts a search anyway --without a warrant-- any contraband will likely be declared invalid evidence by the judge, and any charges will probably be dropped. If the officer does attempt to get a warrant and is successful in doing so, any contraband discovered may still be excluded as evidence if the individual's lawyer can convince the judge that the warrant itself was invalid --which, in many cases, it is. No matter what a law enforcement officer threatens or promises, it is always better to refuse to consent to a search.