United States’ citizens’ rights have changed over the country’s relatively short history. The Amendments to the Constitution make up one important set of changes; subsequent case law, especially as established by the Supreme Court, make up another set. The Fourth Amendment was established in order to ensure the rights of people to be ‘secure’ in their persons and possessions; and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures—even when such searches and seizures indicate that a crime has been committed. There is, of course, a mechanism in place to allow law enforcement to search a person’s residence, vehicles and so forth. This is the search warrant, which can only be issued by a judge. The notion of such a warrant is at least implicit in the Fourth Amendment under the guise of ‘probable cause’ supported by evidence that a law has been violated (Fourth Amendment).

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A little over a century ago the Fourth Amendment was put to the test. In Kansas City, Missouri, a gentleman known as ‘Freemont Weeks’ was arrested on suspicion that he was using the Federal mail system to transport lottery tickets. This was at the time against the law. What is significant about Weeks’s case—later to be known as Weeks v. U.S. (1914)—is that the evidence used to support his arrest was obtained from his home without a warrant, and without Weeks’s consent. The case was complicated somewhat by the fact that the police did not need to break in to his residence, since a neighbor helpfully told them where to find the key. Nevertheless, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that the search was illegal because it had been conducted without a search warrant (Weeks v US).

It is to be noted that the Weeks decision covered only Federal courts. That is to say, so far as the decision itself was concerned, it was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment for a defendant who is to be tried at the state level to search or seize property without a warrant. Perhaps surprisingly, it was not until much later—in Mapp v. Ohio (1961)—that the Weeks decision was effectively extended to the state level. Dollree Mapp was part of an illegal gambling operation in Cleveland, Ohio. In mid-1957 officers receive an anonymous tip that an associate of Mapp was engaged in illegal activity, and might be found at Mapp’s residence. Mapp would not let the officers in, having consulted with an attorney via telephone. Later many more police officers returned, claiming to have a warrant to search the residence. It is apparently not clear whether the warrant was genuine. In any case, the Supreme Court decided that the evidence found at Mapp’s residence (which included evidence of participation in illegal gambling) was illegally obtained. The decision was closer this time, 6-3 in favor of Mapp (Mapp v US).

There were other complications with the case, and some of them would later be addressed in subsequent legislation. The person the police were looking for, Virgil Ogletree, was in fact hiding in or near Mapp’s residence. However, all charges against Ogletree were later dropped. Furthermore, even if the police did have a warrant—and one strongly suspects that they did not, or they would have produced it at trial—it could not conceivably have covered the materials in Mapp’s possession that led to her arrest.

A later decision that bore on the Fourth Amendment, and search and seizure rules, was New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), in which a female student was searched at school and evidence was collected that was used against her in a delinquency trial. The Supreme Court decided that this search was warranted because it was conducted by an educator, acting under an allegedly reasonable suspicion, rather than by law enforcement (hence in the absence of a search warrant).

  • “Fourth Amendment.” U.S. Constitution: Fourth Amendment. Cornell Law School. Online, 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2017.
  • “Mapp v. Ohio.” US Supreme Court Law: 367 U.S. 643 (1961) Supreme Justia, 2017. Web. 18 Sept. 2017.
  • “Weeks v. U.S.” US Supreme Court Law: 232 U.S. 383 (1914) Supreme Justia, 2017. Web. 18 Sept. 2017.