In my last post which you can read here, I wrote about flag burning and how it is protected by the first amendment. I also mentioned that I love constitutional law and it’s because of my affinity I am back with another Supreme Court related post. The nitty-gritty of the constitution really excites me. Don’t ask me if that is good or bad because I honestly don’t know. But what I do know is that I think constitutional law is rarely considered in every day conversation unless you are a lawyer, judge, paralegal or politician. So I am hoping to make it a topic of interest. Today I want to present to you the fourth amendment. I find the fourth amendment to be an interesting one. It becomes especially interesting in the light of protests against police violence. Before I introduce the two cases which I believe every citizen needs to know about; I want to (hopefully) re-introduce 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.
The fourth amendment sounds pretty straightforward. It’s wording is less vague than some of the other amendments. The amendment covers two main areas in criminal law, search and seizure. The problem with the amendment is that since 1789, the technology boom has dramatically changed the meaning of search and seizure as it pertains to the constitution. The video camera’s evolution from a huge solid brick on someones shoulder to something microscopic enough to fit in a phone that goes in your pocket. The constant stream of live video has forever altered the fourth amendment. I believe that like the first amendment, the fourth amendment protects some necessary rights even if those rights lead to objectionable or even offensive things.
With that being said, this post sets out to define two baseline Supreme Court cases that have been heard by the Supreme Court. I think the best way to understand Supreme Court cases and constitutional law is to actually look at and try to analyze the court cases. I believe it gives you a much deeper understanding of the law. I’m a firm believer that hearing two sides or more of an argument can be helpful in educating a person on any given subject. This post and others like it, are for me a test of my own knowledge. Like I said before I had only one class of constitutional law. I never took criminal justice or law classes. However, I do have a pretty good understanding because I have self-educated on this subject. Rare I know. So I’d like to present the two cases of Mapp vs. Ohio and Weeks vs. United States.
I want to start with Weeks vs. the United States which handed their decision in 1914. The Weeks case holds origin of the Exclusionary Rule which I will explain after this. In this case, the Court had to decide this basic question about the fourth amendment: What use can be made of evidence gained in an illegal search? This was one of many questions but it is the most important. The Court was seeking to use the fourth amendment as protection. This case was about a man who was arrested and brought to trial on evidence obtained illegally. You can read all the background here. The Court decided that Weeks who had his office and home searched without a warrant was unfairly tried. The Court overturned Weeks’ case because of the evidence was gained by illegal which means obtain without a warrant.
The most important opinion from the Weeks v. United States is one delivered by Justice Day who writes that “illegally gained evidence “fruit of the poison tree” and ordered that illegally gained evidence be excluded in the future from any federal court.” The court decided unanimously to overturned the case and establish an important constitutional law called the Exclusionary Rule. The Exclusionary rule as set by the Week’s case says that in federal court, any evidence obtained without a warrant is inadimissible in court. The Exclusionary Rule protects people from illegal searches. This is exactly what the court set out to do. The Supreme Court wasn’t done with the Exclusionary as some years later another case came along called Mapp vs. Ohio. The Mapp case would expand the rule even further.
The Mapp vs. Ohio came to the Supreme Court in 1961. It was a decision that cited Weeks vs. United States as a precedent. It also expanded the Exclusionary Rule to the state courts as well as the federal courts. You can read the background of the case right here. The court decided in a 5-4 vote that the evidence against Mapp was obtained illegally or without a warrant. It was a different set of cirumstances than Weeks however, it applied to the same constitutional fourth amendment rights. Justice Clark gave this conclusion near the end of his opinion. It will sum up the case in better terms than I could put it myself.
Having once recognized that the right to privacy embodied in the Fourth Amendment is enforceable against the States, and that the right to be secure against rude invasions of privacy by state officers is, therefore, constitutional in origin, we can no longer permit that right to remain an empty promise. Because it is enforceable in the same manner and to like effect as other basic rights secured by the Due Process Clause, we can no longer permit it to be revocable at the whim of any police officer who, in the name of law enforcement itself, chooses to suspend its enjoyment. Our decision, founded on reason and truth, gives to the individual no more than that which the Constitution guarantees him, to the police officer no less than that to which honest law enforcement is entitled, and, to the courts, that judicial integrity so necessary in the true administration of justice.
I believe that the fourth amendment is even important today. I know that these cases are now very old. The Weeks vs. United States case was decided over 100 years ago. The Mapp vs. Ohio case was decided nearly 55 years ago. But I think that Court need to make a general rule especially considering the ever expanding technology boom. The Exclusionary Rule will protect people from being tried on illegally obtain evidence. I think that alone ensures a fair trial. Not to mention all the other rights that guarentee a fair trial.
Of course, unless you have committed a crime there’s not much applicable to this amendment. However, I do find interesting with the NSA and the spying on everyday citizens. One has to think that some day there will be case filled against the federal government for spying and violating the fourth amendment. That isn’t say that it won’t happen but I believe there probably are few cases making their way. It would be ground breaking if the court ruled on a decision that made the government’s spying on people without a warrant or reason illegal. I don’t know of any cases of people actually being tried for potential crimes based on the NSA spying. But I imagine one of the defenses would be the fourth amendment.
To wrap up this blog post, I just want to say that its important to know your constitutional rights because you never know when you might need them. This is also part of the reason why I write about them. I realize its not the most exhilrating subject. I hope you enjoyed this, there will definitely be more coming soon!