How far do your Fourth Amendment rights go?
Sept. 18, 2012
By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer
In the past year, cases from local courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court have focused on the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure as it relates to cell phone confiscation; GPS tracking by law enforcement; strip-searches of prisoners; and circumstances when warrantless searches are allowed.
The Fourth Amendment right has its roots in English history. In England, authorities had broad search-and-seizure powers to enforce customs law. In the American colonies, especially in busy ports, British officials’ use of this power to search buildings for whatever reason became a special grievance for colonists. The framers of the Bill of Rights intended to stop these types of searches and abuse of power with the Fourth Amendment, which 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.
However, the language in the amendment was broad and didn’t address issues such as how to define “unreasonable” and “probable cause.” It was left up to the courts to interpret the constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Mapp v. Ohio: Expanding the exclusionary rule
In a 1914 ruling in Weeks v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court established the exclusionary rule, which said that evidence taken in an illegal search – meaning without a warrant – cannot be used in court. It was the court’s solution to preventing illegal searches. However, the Weeks decision affected only federal cases.
The exclusionary rule was extended to states in the 1961 case of Mapp v. Ohio. Dollree Mapp refused to allow Cleveland police to search her home for a bombing suspect because they did not have a warrant. She knew her rights. Eventually police got into the house to search for the suspect and wound up seizing pornographic comics that they found in a briefcase. Police charged Mapp with possession of obscene materials. She maintained they did not belong to her.
The thing is, the police did not have a warrant – officers entering the house waved a fake one at Mapp. Mapp was found guilty of the obscenity charge, but she appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. The justices overturned her conviction, saying the exclusionary rule applied in state courts, too.
This was a significant ruling. As one scholar, University of Pennsylvania law professor Kermit Roosevelt, put it, “Fourth Amendment rights are worthless if the exclusionary rule is not available.”
The Fourth Amendment Today: Four cases
After the Mapp ruling and others that followed, some wondered if Fourth Amendment protections had gone too far. They kept law enforcement from abusing power, but did they obstruct justice? Here are how four recent cases looked at that question.
• Kentucky v. King: Police pursuing a suspected drug dealer stopped outside an apartment, where they smelled marijuana. They knocked, announced themselves as police, heard a toilet flushing and suspected their suspect was destroying evidence. Turns out they were completely wrong – their suspect was not inside, and the occupant, Hollis King, was using the bathroom – but he was arrested without a warrant for possession of marijuana and cocaine. The Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that officers are allowed to act with urgency and enter without a warrant if they suspect evidence is being destroyed. However, they still have to demonstrate they had probable cause to do so – in other words, they can’t wander their beat, breaking down doors willy-nilly, they have to demonstrate a reason.
• United States v. Jones: Law enforcement tracked Antoine Jones, a suspected drug dealer in Washington, D.C., for almost a month by attaching a GPS device to his Jeep. They did not have a warrant. Jones was sentenced to life in prison for drug-trafficking conspiracy. In February 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that GPS tracking is a form of search and requires a warrant.
• United States v. Flores-Lopez: An Indiana man was arrested for dealing drugs, and law enforcement searched his cell phone without a warrant to track down his supplier. They argued that a warrant was unnecessary, since speed was essential. Data on the cell phone could be accessed remotely and deleted, and would not be able to be used as evidence. A federal appeals court sided with the police, saying that as a matter of urgency, police have the right to search a cell phone without a warrant.
• Florence v. County of Burlington: A New Jersey man was arrested during a traffic stop because his records showed he had not paid a previous traffic fine. He had paid the fine – the record was in error – but Florence was detained in two jails, strip-searched in each and forced to take a delousing shower. He was “petrified” and “humiliated” and sued the county, saying it had violated his civil rights. The Supreme Court ruled against him in April 2012, saying that the corrections officials had the right to strip-search incoming prisoners if they determined it was necessary to emsure the safety and security of the prison.
What do you think?
How far should your Fourth Amendment rights go? Do you think procedures and restrictions placed on law enforcement are necessary? Do you think those procedures go too far, obstructing justice? How would you have ruled in each of these cases? Does suspected destruction of evidence mean police don’t need a warrant? Does GPS tracking equal a search? Should every prisoner be strip-searched when jailed? Join the discussion!
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