The Fourth Amendment: what is a search? what is property?

Posted on June 12, 2015. Filed under: Bill of Rights, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

We’ve reached part five in our series on the Bill of Rights. Here we look at the Fourth Amendment, which gives us the old chestnut “a man’s home is his castle”. Sort of.

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.

Readers of the HP will feel these words are familiar, and they are: the very first law of the 1641 Body of Liberties—the first codification of English law in North America—states:

No man’s life shall be taken away, no man’s honor or good name shall be stained, no man’s person shall be arrested, restrained, banished, dismembered, nor any ways punished, no man shall be deprived of his wife or children, no man’s goods or estate shall be taken away from him, nor any way indemnified under color of law or countenance of authority, unless it be by virtue or equity of some express law of the country warranting the same, established by a General Court and sufficiently published, or in the case of the defect of a law in any particular case by the word of God. And in capital cases, or in cases concerning dismembering or banishment, according to that word to be judged by the General Court.

Every tenet of the Fourth Amendment is here. This concept has a fairly long history in English law. Seizure of goods became an issue in the run-up to the American Revolution, as early as 1754, when the Excise Act of 1754 gave tax collectors expansive powers to search people’s homes and shops under the aegis of uncovering and destroying smuggled goods. The problem was how general the search warrants were—they did not specify what the tax collectors might be looking for, and thus allowed them to go through anything and everything they wanted.

As an unknown writer at Wikipedia succinctly puts it,

Fourth Amendment case law deals with three central issues: what government activities constitute “search” and “seizure”; what constitutes probably cause or these actions; [and] how violations of Fourth Amendment rights should be addressed.

The Fourth Amendment typically requires “a neutral and detached authority interposed between the police and the public,” and it is offended by “general warrants” and laws that allows searches to be conducted “indiscriminately and without regard to their connection with [a] crime under investigation”, for the “basic purpose of the Fourth Amendment, which is enforceable against the States through the Fourteenth, through its prohibition of “unreasonable” searches and seizures is to safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by governmental officials.

Nowadays, what constitutes “houses, papers, and effects”, as well as “the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized” is up for grabs. Are text messages “papers”? Are phone calls? How can these be seized? Can anyone’s calls or emails or tweets be somehow removed from them and taken into government custody? And if the place to be searched is the Internet, how can searches be narrowed down to be very specific? If a video goes viral and is picked up by ten thousand websites, should all 10,001 sites be shut down? If the “paper” is a phone call, is the “place to be searched” the data-minimal phone records, or wiretap recordings of the calls?

If the police stop someone because they suspect that person was texting while driving, do they have the right to ask for the person’s cell phone to see if it has a recent text on it? Some courts have said yes, others no because the contents of the cell phone are private and a search warrant is needed to read them.

Other recent cases involve drug-sniffing police dogs, including the issue of whether a person arrested for some other crime who is then found to have drugs in their possession by a police dog can be arrested and held for drug possession when that was not the original reason for the arrest. If you’re stopped for speeding, then a police dog finds drugs in your car, the police officer should only be able to arrest you for speeding since that’s why s/he stopped you—that’s the specific “warrant” for the stop. The dogs become an added, general search warrant that might turn up other problems. The courts have generally found in favor of the police in these cases.

And of course the NSA’s surveillance of all phone calls in the United States has been attacked on Fourth Amendment grounds because it is the definition of “general”. The constant monitoring of phone calls represents a constant, general search that is most likely completely unwarranted in 99% of cases. You can’t search every house in New York City because there might be a gun in one of those houses.

This amendment was so clear and simple when it was ratified; the Founders would be grateful they aren’t around now to revise it to suit 21st-century life.

Next time: the famous Fifth Amendment

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