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Search and Seizure

Two Problems

The basic structure of search and seizure law seems fairly stable; large changes are unlikely, at least in the near future. In assessing that structure, it is helpful to focus on two issues. The first goes to the interests the law of search and seizure protects. The second goes to an interest that, for the most part, the law of search and seizure ignores.

Privacy. The dominant focus of the law of search and seizure is protecting privacy. "Privacy" here has a particular meaning—it is not some generalized right to be let alone; rather, it is the interest in being free from observation, the interest in not being seen or heard. That the law protects privacy in this limited sense is shown by the cases that define "searches," which cover only police conduct that permits officers to see or hear things that ordinary citizens would not be able to see or hear.

Notice that the interest in liberty receives less protection. Searches of private homes require probable cause and a warrant. Probable cause, with no warrant, suffices for an arrest outside the home—even though an arrest can lead to detention in the police station. The interest in being free from police violence receives, if not less protection, less attention, which may amount to the same thing: The number of excessive force claims brought against police officers is but a small fraction of the number of suppression motions based on allegedly illegal car searches.

The law's focus on privacy sits uncomfortably together with its focus on regulating the police. Administrative agencies like the Internal Revenue Service arguably invade people's privacy more than the police—think about the kinds of information people must supply on their tax forms. If one really wished to protect privacy, then, a natural way to do so would be to regulate with some care what questions the IRS can ask and how it can ask them. Yet Fourth Amendment law has almost nothing to say about those topics. At the same time, it has a great deal to say about questions like when the police can inspect the inside of a paper bag, or look inside the glove compartment of a car—trivial privacy invasions, one might think, compared with tax forms. In other words, search and seizure law protects privacy, but only when the police infringe it. That seems an odd way to protect privacy.

And protecting privacy may be an odd way to regulate the police. Police do two things that other government agents—grand juries, prosecutors, or administrative agencies—do not. Police arrest people, which means removing them from their homes and locking them up. And police beat, sometimes shoot, people as a means of obtaining and maintaining control over them. If one were to imagine a body of law whose goal was specially to regulate the police, one might expect that law to focus on those two things: on regulating police ability to deprive suspects of their liberty and, perhaps especially, on limiting police ability to injure or kill suspects. Fourth Amendment law does some of that. But it focuses more on privacy interests, on searches of homes and cars and paper bags, and less on other, perhaps more important goals.

Race discrimination. One of those goals might be to eliminate police discrimination on the basis of race. African Americans suffer a disproportionate share of arrests and prison sentences. Much of that disproportion flows from differences in crime rates across population groups, but some of the disproportion may be a consequence of discriminatory targeting of suspects by the police. Perhaps surprisingly, Fourth Amendment law does little to stop that sort of discrimination. Given the breadth of criminal law, police have probable cause to arrest or reasonable suspicion to stop a large portion of the population—when it comes to vehicular traffic, a large majority of the population. Within this pool of potential suspects, police can target whom they wish; Fourth Amendment law basically says nothing about their exercise of enforcement discretion. So if police officers stop large numbers of black drivers, ostensibly for speeding but primarily to check for drugs, and stop few whites, the black drivers have no legal claim.

This is true notwithstanding the fact that a number of courts forbid the use of race as a factor in police "profiles." Such profiles are common in drug investigations; they basically list factors common to drug couriers in particular markets at particular times. Officially, race is a forbidden factor, but officers can easily take race into account without acknowledging that they do so, and for now, the law tolerates that.

Another form of potential discrimination involves the targeting of some kinds of crimes, and some neighborhoods, more severely than others. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, urban crack markets received more police attention than suburban markets in cocaine powder. Most crack defendants were black; most cocaine powder defendants were white. One could argue that the strong tilt against crack was, on balance, a good thing; one could also argue that it was socially harmful, in part because of the racial composition of the two pools of defendants. Whichever answer is right, the current law of search and seizure leaves the question wholly to the police.

There may be no good alternative to that position. Courts are poorly positioned to direct the allocation of police resources across crimes and neighborhoods, and any serious effort to eliminate discriminatory policing would require precisely that. Still, it seems strange that Fourth Amendment law—the body of law most clearly devoted to regulating the police—has so little to do with what may be the most serious regulatory problem in the world of policing: stamping out race discrimination.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawSearch and Seizure - The Fourth Amendment: Origins, Text, And History, The Current Structure Of Search And Seizure Law