The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution 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.
The American Revolution was fought, in part, to create a system of government in which the RULE OF LAW would reign supreme. The rule of law is often identified with the old saying that the United States is a nation of laws and not of men. Under the rule of law, the actions of government officials are prescribed by the principles and laws that make up the U.S. legal system and do not reflect the ARBITRARY whims and caprices of the government officials themselves.
A distinction is sometimes drawn between power and authority. Law enforcement officers are entrusted with the powers to conduct investigations, to make arrests, and occasionally to use lethal force in the line of duty. But these powers must be exercised within the parameters authorized by the law. Power exercised outside of these legal parameters transforms law enforcers into lawbreakers, as happened when Los Angeles police officer Laurence Powell was convicted for using excessive force against RODNEY KING, who had been stopped for speeding. Powell repeatedly struck King with his night-stick even though King was in a submissive position, lying prone on the ground.
The Fourth Amendment was intended to create a constitutional buffer between U.S. citizens and the intimidating power of law enforcement. It has three components. First, it establishes a privacy interest by recognizing the right of U.S. citizens to be "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects." Second, it protects this privacy interest by prohibiting SEARCHES AND SEIZURES that are "unreasonable" or are not authorized by a warrant based upon probable cause. Third, it states that no warrant may be issued to a law enforcement officer unless that warrant describes with particularity "the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
The Framers drafted the Fourth Amendment in response to their colonial experience with British officials, whose discretion in collecting revenues for the Crown often went unchecked. Upon a mere suspicion held by British tax collectors or their informants, colonial magistrates were compelled to issue general warrants, which permitted blanket door-to-door searches of entire neighborhoods without limitation as to person or place. The law did not require magistrates to question British officials regarding the source of their suspicion or to make other credibility determinations.
The writ of assistance was a particularly loathsome form of general warrant. The name of this writ derived from the power of British authorities to enlist local peace officers and colonial residents who might "assist" in executing a particular search. A writ of assistance lasted for the life of the king or queen under whom it was issued, and it applied to every officer and subject in the British Empire. In essence, such a writ was a license for customs officers tracking smugglers and illegally imported goods.
Colonial opposition to general warrants was pervasive and kinetic. In Paxton's Case (also known as the WRITS OF ASSISTANCE CASE), 1 Quincy 51 (Mass. 1761), JAMES OTIS, appearing on behalf of colonists who opposed the issuance of another writ of assistance, denounced general warrants as instruments of "slavery," "villainy," and "arbitrary power." These writs, Otis continued, were "the most destructive of English liberty" because they placed the freedom of every person "in the hands of a petty officer" (as quoted in O'Rourke v. City of Norman, 875 F.2d 1465 [10th Cir. 1989]). In order to be valid, Otis railed, a warrant must be "directed to specific
officers, and to search certain houses" for particular goods, and may only be granted "upon oath made" by a government official "that he suspects such goods to be concealed in those very places he desires to search" (as quoted in Illinois v. Krull, 480 U.S. 340, 107 S. Ct. 1160, 94 L. Ed. 2d 364 ).
Although Otis lost the case, his arguments fueled angry colonial crowds that subsequently interfered with British customs and revenue agents who attempted to seize miscellaneous goods pursuant to general warrants. Some provincial courts began declining to issue writs of assistance, and other courts issued writs with greater specificity. Colonial newspapers complained that British officers were ransacking the colonists' houses, violating the sanctity of their bedrooms, and plundering their privacy under the auspices of general warrants. On the night before the Declaration of Independence was published, JOHN ADAMS cited the "argument concerning the Writs of Assistance ? as the commencement of the controversy between Great Britain and America."
The American Revolution answered the questions surrounding writs of assistance, but the Fourth Amendment raised other questions in the newly founded republic. If a police officer's suspicion is no longer sufficient to obtain a SEARCH WARRANT, as it was in colonial America, where should the line be drawn separating suspicion from probable cause? Although general warrants are now clearly prohibited, how detailed must warrants be to pass constitutional muster? The Fourth Amendment expressly forbids "unreasonable" searches and seizures, but what criteria should be considered in evaluating the reasonableness of a search? The Fourth Amendment also leaves open the question of who should review warrant applications?the judiciary or some other branch of government. The answers to these questions were explored and developed in criminal litigation over the next two centuries.
Fourth Amendment questions arise during criminal litigation in the context of a suppression hearing. This hearing is prompted by a defendant who asks the court to review the method by which the police obtained evidence against him or her, and to determine whether that evidence survives constitutional scrutiny. If the evidence was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment, it usually will be excluded from trial, which means the prosecution will be unable to present it to the jury. The legal...