King of the Castle: The Fourth Amendment

In this installment we look at the 4th Amendment which has a long history and has maintained relevance throughout the founding of the country. The history behind the 4th Amendment and the ways it has been applied are worth an entire college course in and of itself. As it is let’s take a look at what is undoubtedly a very important 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 history of this amendment reaches back to the earlier colonial days. In a famous case known as Semayne’s Case the courts said that people have the right to defend their home from unlawful entry. This seems open and shut until you look closer and see that it included the agents of the King. Entick v. Carrington was also a famous English predecessor where the court said that a warrant had to show cause in order for it to be valid. To bring the law back to the colonies that became the USA, it was actually colonial smugglers who ended up being the victim of unlawful search and seizure. The British government issued general warrants that didn’t specify where they could search or what they were looking for. As a result of this, the states wanted to ensure that they wouldn’t have to submit themselves to unnecessary searches that would damage their personal property.


Katz v. United States (1967)

In this case, Katz was indicted and convicted after the police had wiretapped his phone to gather information on his criminal activities. Katz protested that this was a violation of his Fourth Amendment Rights. The lower appellate courts argued that because there was no physical intrusion the Fourth Amendment had not been violated. However, in a 7-1 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that it was a Constitutional Violation. In the Majority opinion, Justice Stewart asserted that the Constituted the people not the physical places.

Arizona v. Gant (2009)

This case was far less black and white as its predecessor. Mr. Gant was arrested by the Arizona PD for a warrant out for his arrest regarding driving with a suspended license. After they arrested him, they searched the contents of his car. In that car they found cocaine and a handgun. Mr. Gant claimed that this search was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. After the lower appellate courts going back and forth it finally made its way to the Supreme court where a 5-4 split sided in favor of the Mr. Gant. This was by all rights a very controversial and difficult decision for the Justices, but they asserted that these particular circumstances did not permit a warrantless search.

Missouri v. McNeely (2013)

This was another grey area case in which the Court Ruled 5-4 that driving while intoxicated does not preclude warrantless evidence gathering. In this case Mr. McNeely repeatedly refused to submit to sobriety tests and the police officer forced a blood sample to be drawn and tested. Interestingly enough, in a dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas said that the slow metabolic breakdown of alcohol counted as the destruction of evidence and precluded the immediate gathering and testing.

Florida v. Jardines (2013)

Where can police gather evidence? Apparently not even on your front porch without a search warrant. The Court in yet another 5-4 decision decided that the Fourth Amendment applied even to the porch of the house. In this case, the police used a drug sniffing dog on the porch of the house to ascertain whether or not the resident was using the house to grow cannabis. It was only after this that the warrant was obtained because the results showed probably cause to search. The arguments for a and against the decision are compelling and I do recommend you read them on your own as they both make some compelling arguments and there really is no black and white in regards to this case.

Herring v. United States (2009)

This case is also split down the middle. In a 5-4 decision the court argued that mistakes made by police in regards to outdated warrants are still admissible in court and not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. It is important to note that they did specify that it must be an actual mistake and not systematic error or reckless negligence of constitutional rights. Justice Ginsburg in a dissenting opinion said that instead of on a case by case basis, there needs to be a strict exclusionary rule to keep police in compliance with the Fourth Amendment and other Constitutional rights.


As you can see in the court cases listed above, it’s very difficult for the Supreme Court to rule on the Fourth Amendment with any consensus. Reasonable cause is one of those vague terms that sounds good but ultimately leaves itself open to a wide variety of interpretations. Where do we draw the line between reasonable cause and stopping the police from going too far? And yet at the same time when do we draw the line at protection and letting the police do their job to serve and protect? It’s not always an easy question to answer which is why many of these cases end up being split decisions.

What’s more is this is one of the cornerstone Amendments that lends itself to what many call the Constitutional Right to Privacy. Along with the Third, and Fifth Amendment many call this the Constitutional Guarantee of Privacy. While not set in exact words, there is a strongly implied right to privacy embedded in these 3 Amendments in particular. This whole idea warrants a post of its own, but the Fourth Amendment is basically the cornerstone on which this idea rests.

Finally, the Fourth Amendment is a very good amendment to



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