Searches and Seizures: Why we have the Fourth Amendment
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
Perhaps one of the most frequently litigated civil rights amendments, the Fourth Amendment reads:
“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.”
In simpler terms, this amendment limits the scope of executive power by protecting citizens from government overreach.
The belief in protection from unreasonable searches and seizures stems back to a famous English case known as Entick v. Carrington. Nathan Carrington, a messenger for the King, and three other men broke into the home of John Entick. While there, they broke open locks, doors and searched all the rooms, taking away charts and pamphlets that criticized the King and government.
Entick sued on the grounds of trespassing and won. The presiding royal, Lord Camden, said the right to be secure in ones’ property is “sacred and incommunicable in all instances…every invasion of private property, be it ever so minute, is a trespass”.
It’s also important to note that the basis of the case was originally to silence anyone who spoke negatively about the government. This is reminiscent of the First Amendment, and the right of free speech against the government. Had these protections been in place in Britain at the time, there’d have been no need for the illegal search and seizure. This affirms the importance of the First Amendment because it reminds us that the government cannot abridge our freedom of speech through illegal seizure and possession of things like pamphlets, books, speeches, or other types of propaganda.
Under the King, “general warrants” were issued to attack political enemies and allowed for people to be searched without any reason.
In other instances, ‘writs of assistance’ would be issued, which allowed for a search on goods that hadn’t been taxed. Writs of assistance were warrants that allowed law enforcement to search for goods that had been smuggled. Oftentimes goods were smuggled because taxes were much too high.
Therefore, the Fourth Amendment is meant to ensure that a search is conducted with probable cause, meaning the government has to prove that they have reason to invade someone’s property. Luckily, the burden of proof is on the government, meaning it is not up to the individual to prove they have nothing worth searching, but rather that the government must prove to a Judge that their suspicions are valid and a warrant should be issued.
Some new laws allow for searches without warrants. Police can search vehicles if they deem there to be ‘probable cause’ and they can also detain people during an arrest in addition to a myriad of other scenarios that don’t require a warrant. However, the Fourth Amendment solidifies one of our most treasured rights: the right of privacy and security for ourselves and our belongings. This is just one of many rights that allow us to live free.