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Search and Seizure - Search And Seizure Before The 1960s

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Like books or songs, some constitutional amendments are more "popular"--i.e., they have been the subject of more Supreme Court cases--than others; and likewise amendments enjoy periods of greater or lesser attention from the legal community. The Fourteenth Amendment, for instance, has had several periods of enormous "popularity" since its adoption in 1868: in the late 1800s, it was used to protect corporate interests, and in the 1960s and 1970s, it was wielded on behalf of civil rights and civil liberties. As for the Fourth Amendment, it had been all but ignored until the 1880s. It did not become a pressing matter until the 1960s, and it was subjected to a significant challenge in the 1980s.

In its first important search and seizure case, Boyd v. United States (1886), the Court read the Fourth and Fifth Amendments together and linked the right against unreasonable search and seizure with the right against self-incrimination. "[T]he seizure of a man's private books and papers to be used in evidence against him," the Court held, would not be "substantially different from compelling him to be a witness against himself." Almost an entire generation passed until the Court again addressed a significant search and seizure issue, and in Adams v. New York (1904) it proved less vigilant with regard to Fourth Amendment protections. In the latter ruling, it held that only when the defendant is required to undertake a "positive act"--e.g., to actually show a law enforcement officer his private books and papers--would this constitute unlawful search and seizure.

The issue of unlawfully obtained evidence came to the forefront with Weeks v. United States (1914), in which the Court held that such evidence would be inadmissable in a federal court. This was the "exclusionary rule," providing for the exclusion of evidence obtained illegally. Yet this restriction, as the ruling in Wolf v. People of the State of Colorado in 1949 indicated, did not apply to the states, and would not until 1961.

One of the primary requirements for lawful search and seizure, of course, is the issuance of a warrant according to constitutional guidelines. For instance, the magistrate who issues the warrant must be "neutral and detached," as the Court stated in a 1948 ruling--i.e., the judge must not have any vested interest in the arrest or conviction of the suspect. In Brinegar v. United States (1949), the Court noted that a warrant balanced the "often opposing interests" of individual liberty on the one hand, and public safety on the other. But warrants have to be followed strictly: as was stated in the opinion for Gouled v. United States (1921), which held that law officers could only seize "instrumentalities" of crime, as well as the products of crime, but not "mere evidence." Hence officers could seize an illegal drug lab or the products thereof, but they could not simply go on a hunt for anything to corroborate their case against the suspect.

Search and Seizure - The Exclusionary Rule And Other Holdings Of The Warren Court [next] [back] Search and Seizure - Fourth Amendment Protections

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