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The 4th Amendment: What Does it Do?

The 4th Amendment to the Constitution, otherwise known as “search and seizure” contained within the U.S. Bill of Rights was ratified on December 19, 1789, and became law.

The 4th Amendment text reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

What Does the 4th Amendment Do?

Borrowed from Old England “every man’s house is his castle,” is what the 4th Amendment is all about. The 4th Amendment is an important law that protects U.S. citizen’s privacy, dignity and security from unreasonable search and seizure and requires law enforcement to procure search warrants, from a judge and have “probable cause” before conducting any search of a person, place or thing.

The 4th Amendment is widely litigated with a focus on government’s responsibility to conduct legal search and seizures with the proper documentation. Often the question is what constitutes “probable cause” in a particular situation.

Where is it Used?

Whenever local law police officers have reason to suspect someone of wrongdoing and want to search their car, person or home, the 4th Amendment kicks in, and they must follow proper protocol. Not only does this apply to police but also other branches of law enforcement like the FBI, DEA, and CIA. Rarely are their exceptions to this rule.

Back when American was under British law, abuse of the “writ of assistance” which was basically a universal search warrant, prompted the need for the 4th Amendment to protect citizens against searches based on government whim.

Once America broke off from Britain, the 4th Amendment really didn’t come into play much legally until the 20th century. It is now a widely used and controversial issue especially in our modern technology age where information is readily available in so many formats.

Famous 4th Amendment Cases

In 1914 police illegally entered Mr. Freemont Weeks house using his hide-a-key and found him guilty of sending lottery tickets through the mail. The Supreme Court ruled that the police had violated the 4th Amendment in the landmark case Weeks v. the United States.

In New Jersey v. T.L.O., in 1985 a female student was searched upon suspicion of drugs and smoking. The administration found rolling papers, marijuana, a pipe and a lot of money in her purse, plus a list of students owning her money. The Supreme Court ruled that although students do have 4th Amendment rights, the school has a commitment to the safety of all students and found their search not unreasonable.

In 1973 during Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, Robert Bustamonte argued that although he gave consent to search his vehicle where stolen checks were found, he was not aware that he had the right to refuse. The Supreme Court overturned the “waiver test” and upheld the arrest saying his 4th Amendment rights were not violated.

In Mapp v. Ohio in 1961, the defendant’s house was searched for a bombing suspect (which they did not find), but they found illegal pornography and Mapp was arrested. During the search, officers never produced a search warrant, even with her lawyer present. The Supreme Court ruled that Mapp’s 4th Amendment rights were violated and the evidence was inadmissible.

Recently, in United States v. Graham, the Supreme Court, confirmed that 4th Amendment rights do not protect information shared with a third-party. The case concerned text and phone records from a cellular carrier that were obtained by police.

Modern Society and the 4th Amendment

Initially, the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government and so local and state authorities were not subject to these laws. However, in the landmark case Mapp v. Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled that the 4th Amendment applied to state law enforcement officials as well.

As it applies to modern society, the 4th Amendment is invoked every time someone is arrested, searched or their property seized in an investigation. Search, and seizure is a big topic in the news since 9/11 and threats of terrorism spread across the country. The Patriot Act has somewhat convoluted the rights of Americans when it comes to suspicion of terrorism. It stands to reason that with law enforcement actions sanctioned by the Patriot Act, more litigation in the courts about 4th Amendment rights violations may be the result.

Modern technology has also complicated the 4th Amendment issue and many cases in courts today reference technology records, such as email records obtained without consent as evidence. The Supreme Court evaluates each case individually, and in some cases, it is ruled that the information was obtained legally even without the owner’s knowledge or consent.