Search, Seizure, and Privacy

By Darien A. McWhirter | Go to book overview

CHAPTER eight
The Fourth Amendment Today

The Fourth Amendment was written, in the opinion of most Supreme Court justices who have been called upon to interpret it, to protect the private life of the people from unreasonable intrusions by government officials. The Court, from its first opinion interpreting the Fourth Amendment in 1886, refused to be tied to the specific words of the amendment. Those words gave very little guidance to the Court in deciding concrete legal cases. The amendment spoke of warrants but did not state when warrants were required. The amendment spoke of "persons, houses, papers, and effects," but surely other buildings besides "houses" and other things besides "papers and effects" were intended to be protected. The amendment spoke of "searches and seizures" but did not define what was meant by a search or how much control government had to exercise over things or people before they could be considered seized. From 1886 on, the Court assumed that the Fourth Amendment was intended to protect more than just property, and that privacy, the freedom to be left alone, was also included.

Beginning in 1914, the Court decided that the only way to enforce the Fourth Amendment's command that property and privacy be respected was to exclude from criminal trials evidence that had been obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. In 1961 the Court extended the exclusionary rule to state and local law enforcement after concluding that nothing else would force police at the local level to respect the commands of the Fourth Amendment. The fact that the exclusionary rule often meant that people convicted of terrible crimes would go free brought much public criticism to the Court, particularly the Warren Court. In no other area of constitutional law has the

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