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Summary of the Fourth Amendment

One of the most sacred protections of the Bill of Rights (the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution) is the Fourth Amendment, which protects civilians' rights to liberty, property, and privacy. This is the amendment that protects against unreasonable search and seizure. Despite its importance, it's only one sentence long.

The following is a summary of the Fourth Amendment, including a brief history, the text of the amendment itself, and how the courts defined its protections.

Background of the Fourth Amendment: In Brief

In 1760, when Britain controlled the territories that would become the United States, the crown increased its control over trade by issuing "writs of assistance." Colonial smugglers were trading with and enriching the enemies of England. Smuggled goods avoided taxation, which shortchanged the English treasury.

These laws gave British officials a blanket warrant to enter any ship or home to search (and seize, if necessary) any suspicious goods in ports in the colonies.

This action angered many colonists who saw it as an overreach — as an "unreasonable" search and seizure. Several states included protections against it in their own state constitutions prior to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment.

Interestingly, the Fourth Amendment did not originally apply to the states until it was incorporated via the Fourteenth Amendment. The landmark Supreme Court case on this point was Mapp v. Ohio in 1961.

Summary of the Fourth Amendment: The Text

The Fourth Amendment is very brief. It is essentially broken into two clauses, the "unreasonable search and seizures" clause and the "warrants" clause.

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 courts have provided (and continue to provide) more details about how and when these protections apply.

Uncertainty Over the Text

Although ratification of the Fourth Amendment answered any lingering doubts about the validity of the writs of assistance in the United States, the Fourth Amendment text raised questions of its own.

What was the intended meaning of the terms "unreasonable," "search or seizure," "warrant," "particularity," "oath or affirmation," and "probable cause"? What is the scope of protection offered for "houses, papers, and effects"?

The U.S. Supreme Court, lower federal courts, and state courts have spent more than 200 years grappling with the questions raised by the Fourth Amendment text and continue to do so as new cases come before them. Consider the challenges presented by new technology — thermal imaging, drone technology, metadata, etc. There are always new boundaries to explore.

Over the years, courts have clarified the rights protected by this Amendment. For example, the Supreme Court ruled that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their bodies, clothing, and personal belongings. Similarly, homeowners have a privacy interest that extends from their homes to the surrounding area.

Deciding where to draw the line regarding privacy, and how to apply the rights to criminal procedure, still remains contentious. If you are interested in learning more about court decisions regarding Fourth Amendment protections, FindLaw has a more extensive discussion here.

Protect Your Fourth Amendment Rights: Talk to an Attorney

Police can't search you and seize your property whenever they please. But there are times when a search isn't considered a "search" under constitutional protections. If you're involved in a criminal case, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney near you today.

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