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 Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is the part of the Bill of Rights which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures. It also requires warrants issued by courts to be supported by probable cause.
Debates surrounding Fourth Amendment law involve balancing an individual’s right to privacy against law enforcement’s need to aggressively investigate crime. As crime rates soar, the legal trend has been to give police more leeway under the amendment. However, it has not been without debate. One only need point to the controversy surrounding the Patriot Act, where police were granted expanded powers to wiretap phone conversations, intercept emails, etc., without a warrant. No doubt, the Fourth Amendment has created a growing body of law, affecting all Americans.
The text says:
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 framers of the Constitution adopted the amendment in response to the writs of assistance (a type of blanket search warrant) that were used during the American Revolution.
Before one can answer whether a search is reasonable, it must be established that there was, indeed, a search under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. In Katz v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that there is a search if a party has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the area searched.
In Katz, the government wiretapped a telephone booth. The court found that it was an unreasonable search because the defendant expected his phone conversation to be private. The court used a “reasonable man” standard. Would society believe that Katz’s expectation of privacy was reasonable? The court held that the government should have obtained permission from a court, via a search warrant, before wiretapping the phone booth.
In order to obtain a warrant, an investigating officer must state, under oath, that he has reason to believe that the search will uncover criminal activity or evidence of a crime. A judge must find that probable cause exists to support the warrant. The Supreme Court has ruled that the term probable cause means that there is a “practical, nontechnical” probability that incriminating evidence is involved.”
The standards of probable cause differ for an arrest and a search. A “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment occurs when a person is arrested and taken into custody. The officer must have probable cause to seize the person. Police have probable cause to make an arrest when the facts they possess, based on “reasonably trustworthy information” would lead a reasonable person to believe that the person arrested had committed a crime.
Not every incident involves an “arrest” requiring probable cause. Under Terry v. Ohio, police may conduct a limited warrantless search (frisk them) on a level of suspicion less than probable cause when they observe “unusual conduct” that leads them to reasonably believe “that criminal activity may be afoot” and that the suspect is presently dangerous to the officer or others.
The Fourth Amendment also prohibits the unreasonable seizure of personal property without a warrant. A seizure of property occurs when there is meaningful interference by the government with an individual’s possessory interests.
Courts enforce the Fourth Amendment via the exclusionary rule. Any evidence obtained in violation of the amendment cannot be used to prosecute the defendant at trial. The defense attorney must move the court to suppress the evidence.
Like any rule, there are exceptions. No warrant is needed if a person agrees to the search. Likewise, if an officer is legally in a place and sees objects in “plain view” that he has probable cause to believe are evidence of a crime, he may seize them without a warrant. “Open fields” such as wooded areas or pastures may be searched without a warrant (there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy in them). And so on and so forth.
The most recent exception was handed down by the Supreme Court on May 16th. In a case originating in my state of Kentucky, the Court created a new exception to the warrant requirement. Now, police may enter a home without a warrant when they have reason to believe that drug evidence is being destroyed. The Kentucky police acted properly when they smelled marijuana at an apartment door, knocked loudly, announced themselves, and kicked in the door.
Jeffrey Reed, a professional orchestra conductor, holds a degree from the Louis B. Brandeis School of Law. Before beginning his music career, he practiced law and taught constitutional law at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he resides.