Ever wonder how the law adapts to technology that makes it harder or easier for police to search and seize suspected criminals? Orin Kerr posits that an Equilibrium-adjustment exists. "Courts respond to the new facts by trying to restore the old level of protection. If a new technology or practice increased government power, courts ratchet up Fourth Amendment...
Fourth Amendment: Warrants, Searches, and Seizures
The Fourth Amendment owes much of its inspiration to the experience of the American colonies with the English Crown's issuance of General Warrants. These warrants, otherwise known as Writs of Assistance, gave government agents the authority to search and seize practically whatever they wanted without cause or justification. They were thus considered by many Common Law (a system of laws and legal precedents established by judges over long periods of time) jurists a direct attack on the liberty and privacy of individuals.
Writs of Assistance achieved infamy in the aftermath of the French and Indian War, which ended in 1763. The British Crown decided to levy taxes on the colonists to pay for their war debts. As a result of this decision, many American merchants turned to smuggling in order to avoid the heavy taxation on their products. The British crown reacted to the widespread smuggling by issuing their customs agents Writs of Assistance, thereby giving these government tax collectors free reign to search and seize the property of anyone they suspected of smuggling goods.
This experience led to states, such as Massachusetts, outlawing the usage of General Warrants. With the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791, the Fourth Amendment was included in the U.S. Constitution. The text of the Amendment is as follows:
"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."
After the 4th Amendment's adoption, the issue of search and seizure rights did not gain prominence until the Supreme Court case of Weeks v. United States in 1914. This Supreme Court case is considered monumental in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence as it established what is known as the "exclusionary rule." According to this rule, any evidence collected by the government in violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of the accused is not admissible in court and cannot be used to help convict that individual (This first ruling was only applied to federal criminal cases. After Mapp v. Ohio, the exclusionary rule applied to both state and federal levels).
Today, many political and legal commentators continue to argue the merits of the exclusionary rule. This debate does not run along political ideology divides, as conservatives and liberals find themselves on both sides of the issue. Those who wish to further empower law enforcement officials say that the exclusionary rule protects the guilty and perverts justice. Those who stress protection of civil liberties support the exclusionary rule, claiming that it is a solid check against overzealous law enforcement agents violating individual rights in order to make an arrest.
The protection of Fourth Amendment rights has gained particular salience in light of the War on Terror. In an effort to combat terrorism domestically, the PATRIOT Act authorizes government agents to carry out warrantless wiretaps of phone calls and e-mails. Again, many along the political ideology spectrum support these provisions, claiming that they are necessary to keep America safe from terrorist attacks. Others are opposed to them, claiming that the PATRIOT Act enables unconstitutional breaches of Americans' Fourth Amendment rights and leads to government abuse of authority.
This topic page will provide you with in-depth analysis of the Fourth Amendment. It examines the Fourth Amendment's history and philosophical basis, and offers a look at the contemporary legal and political debates surrounding its interpretation and application.
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