One of the most sacred protections of the Bill of Rights (the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution) is the Fourth Amendment, which protects civilians' rights against unreasonable search and search and seizure. Despite its importance, it's only one sentence long. But what does "unreasonable search and seizure" mean, what exactly is a "search," and how have the courts defined these protections?
The following is a summary of the Fourth Amendment, including a brief history, the text of the amendment itself, and how it has been interpreted generally.
Background of the Fourth Amendment: In Brief
During British Colonial control of the territories that would become the United States, they increased their control over trade by issuing "writs of assistance" in 1760. These laws gave British officials a blanket warrant to search (and seize, if necessary) any suspicious goods in ports throughout the western colonies. This was seen as an overreach, resulting in "unreasonable" searches and seizures, and angered many colonists.
Although ratification of the Fourth Amendment answered any lingering doubts about the validity of the writs of assistance in the United States, the Fourth Amendment text raised questions of its own about the meaning of the terms "unreasonable," "search or seizure," "warrant," "particularity," "oath or affirmation," and "probable cause," not to mention other questions about the scope of such terms as "houses, papers, and effects."
The U.S. Supreme Court, lower federal courts, and state courts have spent more than 200 years grappling with the questions raised by the Fourth Amendment text and continue to do so as new cases come before them.
Uncertainty Over the Text
Over the years, the courts have taken several significant steps in determining and clarifying the rights protected by the amendment. For example, the Supreme Court has ruled that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their bodies, clothing, and personal belongings. In fact, this expectation of privacy was cited in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
Similarly, homeowners have a privacy interest that extends from their homes to the surrounding areas. However, deciding where to draw the line, regarding privacy, and how to apply the rights to criminal procedure still remain contentious topics of debate.
Summary of the Fourth Amendment: The Text
The Fourth Amendment is very brief, as are other constitutional amendments. The courts have provided (and continue to provide) more details about how and when these protections apply. The following is the full text of the Fourth Amendment:
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.
Protect Your Fourth Amendment Rights: Talk to an Attorney
As discussed in the preceding summary of the Fourth Amendment, police can't just search you and take things whenever they please. However, there are times when an abrupt search and seizure isn't considered a "search" in terms of constitutional protections. If you're involved in a criminal case, it would be in your best interests to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney near you today.