The United States Constitution did not originally have a Bill of Rights, but during the time when the Constitution was being written, the Founding Fathers were very concerned about the potential for individual rights' abuse by the government. Some of the Founding Fathers were against the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, but eventually, the concern about the government using its power to abuse the rights of citizens won out over the fear of not giving the government enough power (Cuddihy). The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution were added and are now called the Bill of Rights; they are considered the essential foundation of all the philosophical and legal ideals regarding the protection of the individual against the government.
The Fourth Amendment was adopted, most legal historians believe, as a reactionary measure to some of the policies that the British utilized against the American colonists, such as the use of what were known as “general warrants.” A “general warrant” could be issued under the authority of the British Crown, and the representative of the Crown could then search an individual and all of his property looking for anything; these were often used to search and seize things that the colonists had not paid customs for (Cuddihy). As with many problems that caused friction during the Revolutionary War and pre-Revolutionary War era, the financial losses that the colonists sustained were irritants that sparked serious dissent against the British Crown and helped lead to the eventual revolution against British forces (Cuddihy).
Today, many people take for granted the protections that they are granted under law. A series of misunderstandings about the Bill of Rights and the protections that they afford the individual are pervasive in American society; this is unfortunate, because understanding one's legal rights is very important in case of legal or criminal trouble.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is concerned with an individual’s rights in terms of criminal charges and criminal trials; civil trials are governed by a different set of rules and laws, and the interaction of laws in criminal and civil trials are too complex to examine here. Instead, this discussion will focus on the text of the Fourth Amendment and its applicability in criminal trials and charges.
The text of the Fourth 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. (“Fourth amendment/Legal Information Institute”)
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution (hereafter the “Fourth Amendment”) is primarily concerned with the protection of the individual’s rights against intrusion by the federal government (“Fourth amendment/Legal Information Institute”). It is important to note that when one individual acting in a private capacity searches another individual, the Fourth Amendment does not apply, for the most part, although there may be certain circumstances (such as when an individual is acting upon request of the authorities) that the Amendment does apply (Cuddihy).
There are three major issues at play when considering the Fourth Amendment, and they are separate, although not unrelated. The first issue that the Fourth Amendment is concerned with is often known as the “Search and Seizure” clause of the Fourth Amendment (Cuddihy). This clause protects the individual from any federal agent searching the individual’s possessions without a warrant or explicit consent from the individual (Cuddihy).
The second issue that is important to note in the Fourth Amendment is the right of the government to issue a warrant, and the right of the individual to be protected from search and seizure unless a warrant is issued. To protect the individual’s rights, the warrant must be issued by a court; different jurisdictions have different rules regarding warrants, but the concept is the same regardless of location: without express permission from the judicial branch, law enforcement cannot search an individual or his or her property (“Drug-Sniffing Dogs and the Fourth Amendment”). There are a few very well-defined exemptions to this rule that will be discussed at length, but by and large, the text of the Fourth Amendment is binding for law enforcement.
The last issue at play in the text of the Fourth Amendment is the issue of probable cause. Probable cause is what the law enforcement officer must prove to the judiciary when he or she is interested in obtaining a warrant to search an individual or his or her property. The judiciary will accept that probable cause has been proven only if the law enforcement officer can show that there is a high likelihood that criminal activity will be uncovered in the case that a warrant is issued (Cuddihy).
The existence of the Fourth Amendment, unfortunately, does not always protect individuals from abuses by the government. As previously stated, there are times when the police and other law enforcement officials can intervene and search an individual without a warrant-- notably, when they are arresting an individual for witnessed illegal behavior or when they believe they have probable cause to fear that someone is in immediate physical danger (Kelly). In these cases, the police may be allowed to frisk an individual, for instance; if they find evidence of illegal activity on the individual during an arrest, that evidence is still considered to be legally obtained, because the frisk is permissible under the Fourth Amendment’s exceptions (Kelly).
Fourth Amendment violations are alarmingly common. This may have many causes; prejudice is an often-cited example of a reason that an individual may have his or her Fourth Amendment rights violated. However, there is a fallback protection for individuals who have had their Fourth Amendment rights violated: an attorney can argue at trial that evidence was obtained without first securing the proper warrant, and the judge may rule the evidence inadmissible at trial (Kelly). This rule is known as the exclusionary rule or the exclusionary principle, and is one of the primary protections that is in place to protect individuals in case their Fourth Amendment rights have been violated (Kelly).
According to Lyle, the United States and her law enforcement agencies have a much longer history of abusing the Fourth Amendment than they do conforming to it. Lyle writes:
The Founding Fathers wrote the first ten amendments with the intent to limit the new federal government that had been created But as early as the 1900s, state violations of the Fourth Amendment had clearly begun police sometimes conducted searches without first obtaining search warrants from the courts, and they conducted general searches even when their search warrants were limited as to the area and the persons to be searched. By 1914, in Weeks v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in order to enforce the Fourth Amendment in federal criminal prosecutions, it would exclude all evidence obtained by a federal officer in violation of the Fourth Amendment. In 1920, the Court extended this rule to exclude not only evidence found in the illegal search but also evidence obtained as a result of information or leads gained from the illegal search, known as “fruits of the search.” Then, in 1961, the Court held in Mapp v. Ohio that “all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution is, by that same authority, inadmissible in a state court.” (Lyle)
This progression of ever-increasing protection for the individual carried on in Supreme Court decisions, although the definitions of “searches and seizures” and “probable cause” became more and more complex as technologies changed and evolved (Nimmo). To this day, however, abuses of the Fourth Amendment still happen. Most notably, members of minority racial groups are more likely to be the subject of Fourth Amendment violations due to racial profiling and prejudice on the part of law enforcement officials, who may see an individual’s minority racial makeup as probable cause for search in and of itself (Weatherspoon).
Racial profiling is a serious problem, and many individuals have their Fourth Amendment rights violated as a result of racial profiling. African-American and Hispanic males of all ages and socioeconomic classes often find their Fourth Amendment rights violated more frequently than members of other groups (Weatherspoon).
In his article about racial profiling in traffic stops, Weatherspoon writes: “Indeed, African-American males are disproportionately targeted, stopped, and searched by law enforcement officials based on race and gender. Those responsible for enforcement of public laws view African-American males as criminals. Unfortunately, the American justice system has condoned, supported, and in some instances encouraged such actions by law enforcement officials to stop, arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate African-American males” (Weatherspoon). He goes on to offer conclusive proof that African-American males specifically are often targeted by law enforcement officials, saying that law enforcement officials commonly see the individual’s gender and racial status as probable cause enough to conduct a stop, search, and seizure of his personal property (Weatherspoon).
Some may ask why the targeting of minorities by law enforcement officials in stops, searches and seizures is a problem if the exclusionary rule prevents prosecutors from using evidence obtained in illegal searches and seizures in court. The problematic nature of this racial profiling is multifaceted and very complex, but it is an incredibly important discussion to engage in, as it has far-reaching effects throughout society.
The first issue that should be addressed is the idea that the rights ensconced within the Bill of Rights of the Constitution are meant to be fundamental and, as the Founding Fathers wrote, “inalienable” (Kelly). When an individual chooses to take the power that he or she was granted by the federal government and utilize it to terrorize, harass, or otherwise undermine another individual’s fundamental and inalienable rights, every member of American society should take notice. The individual who has had his or her rights violated has had a great wrong done against him or her, and to ignore that is to condone the behavior. Allowing the powerful to bully the weak and the powerless is not what the Bill of Rights or law enforcement agencies were designed to do.
In addition, once the Fourth Amendment has been violated (and society has accepted that the right can be violated without due cause) the meaning of the right itself is cheapened. Because every individual is equal under American law today, regardless of the prejudices that individual people may hold, every violation of the Fourth Amendment makes it easier for the Fourth Amendment to be violated again.
In short, it is a slippery slope downward once abuses begin to happen in any environment. According to Weatherspoon, once abuses have been accepted once, it is more likely that there will be the creation of a systematic, widespread incidence of abuse in which prejudice is not only tolerated but may even be encouraged (Weatherspoon). Weatherspoon also notes that this is why certain pockets of prejudice and racism exist in small law enforcement agencies, and even points out that the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles and the subsequent exposure of widespread racial abuse and profiling in the Los Angeles law enforcement agencies is proof that the mentality and mindset of abuse is often shared within law enforcement agencies (Weatherspoon).
The Fourth Amendment rights that have been fleshed out by the Supreme Court do not necessarily protect society from crime. However, they do help to ensure that innocent people are not victims of law enforcement abuses of power, and that guilty individuals are granted the same amount of respect and personal autonomy as innocent individuals. Once society begins to treat individuals who are suspected of crimes as having fewer rights than those who they suspect of being innocent, systematic abuse of authority and power begins to become a reality. This is one of the things that the entire Bill of Rights was designed to help the newly-founded United States avoid.
Many people believe that the Fourth Amendment’s protection against searches and seizures and its requirements that law enforcement obtain a warrant before searching an individual are straightforward and less important than some of the other rights outlined elsewhere in the Bill of Rights. However, the Fourth Amendment’s protections run very deep, and the spirit of the law protects the autonomy and the sanctity of the individual’s person and property.
Cuddihy, William J. The Fourth Amendment: Origins and Original Meaning, 602-1791. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Kelly, P.. "Fourth Amendment Summaries - 4th Amendment Case Summaries of the United States Supreme Court." 2010. Web. 17 Apr 2013.
Law.cornell.edu. "Fourth amendment/Legal Information Institute." 2006. Web. 17 Apr 2013.
Lyle, Peter A. "Racial Profiling and the Fourth Amendment: Applying the Minority Victim Perspective to Ensure Equal Protection Under the Law." 2002. Web. 17 Apr 2013.
Nimmo, Kurt. "It’s Official, the Fourth Amendment is Dead." 2013. Web. 17 Apr 2013.
The Editorial Board. "Drug-Sniffing Dogs and the Fourth Amendment." The New York Times, March 28. 2013: Print.
Usccr.gov. "Police Practices and Civil Rights in New York City." n.d.. Web. 17 Apr 2013.
Weatherspoon, Floyd D. "Racial Profiling of African-American Males: Stopped, Searched, and Stripped of Constitutional Protection." John Marshall Law Review, 439. (2004): Print.