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History of the Fourth Amendment

History of the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment is one of the ten constitutional amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.  In general, the Bill of Rights protects personal freedoms and establishes limitations on the government’s power.  By way of the due process clause, the Fourth Amendment—and the Bill of Rights as a whole—apply to each of the fifty states.

Prior to the adoption of the Fourth Amendment, there was no legal protection against the government’s ability to raid a person’s home and seize anything and everything they found.  In eighteenth century England as well as in the American colonies, blanket warrants were used to ransack the homes of people suspected of political dissidence and smuggling.  In a series of three cases—two in England and one in colonial America—the defense of individual privacy was born. 

The design of the Fourth Amendment was based upon three guiding principles.  First, the government must have a substantial justification to perform a search.  That is to say, the government must show a reason to believe that the evidence sought is contained in the place being searched.  Second, searches—particularly searches of private homes—should be limited to the justification offered to support the search.  For example, in one of the three cases that lead to the adoption of the Fourth Amendment, government officials in England searched the home of a pamphleteer who criticized the king and was charged with libel.  Instead of seizing solely the alleged illegal writings, all of the pamphleteer’s books and writings were confiscated.  Finally, blanket warrants should not be used as a means to circumvent the first two principles.

For more than a century, the Fourth Amendment did not apply to state and local police.  Interestingly, during this time, federal prosecution was rare because the F.B.I. had not yet been formed.  Therefore, the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment were largely irrelevant until the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment applied to the states.  In 1949, the case of Wolf v. Colorado established that the protections of the Fourth Amendment applied to the states by way of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Subsequently, in the 1961 case of Mapp v. Ohio, any evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment can be excluded from use in a criminal trial.