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Wolf v. People of the State of Colorado

Due Process Represents A Living Principle

Justice Frankfurter wrote the opinion for the majority. In considering the restrictions which the Due Process Clause imposed on the states regarding the enforcement of criminal law, Frankfurter noted that "this clause exacts from the States for the lowliest and the most outcast all that is implicit in the concept of ordered liberty." Frankfurter felt that the requirements of due process of law are neither formal nor fixed nor narrow. Due process is all the rights which the courts must enforce because they are basic to our free society; they are eternal verities. A free society advances in its ideas what is reasonable and right. Thus due process represents a living principle and is not confined by what may be considered fundamental rights at any given time. Trying to define a fundamental right ignores the movements of a free society. The Court should not be asked to draw a line delimiting due process once and for all, but it should draw that line by the "gradual and empiric process of inclusion and exclusion."

Being secure against arbitrary intrusion by the police is basic to a free society and is at the core of the Fourth Amendment. Because this is implicit in the concept of ordered liberty it is enforceable against the states through the Due Process Clause. "The knock at the door . . . as a prelude to a search, without authority of law but solely on the authority of the police, did not need the commentary of recent history to be condemned as inconsistent with the conception of human rights enshrined in the history and the basic constitutional documents of English speaking peoples."

If a state sanctioned police incursion into privacy, it would run counter to the guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment. The question of enforcing this basic right has many possible answers. In Weeks v. United States (1914), the Court held that in a federal prosecution, the Fourth Amendment barred the use of evidence obtained through an illegal search and seizure. This ruling was a matter of judicial implication. In 1949, 30 states rejected the Weeks doctrine and 17 agreed with it. Excluding from trial evidence illegally obtained only protects a person on whose premises something incriminating has been found. Such people, and innocent people, have private action and the internal discipline of the police as remedies. Excluding evidence may be an effective deterrent against unreasonable searches, but the states may use other methods equally effective. Excluding evidence unreasonably obtained by federal police is more compelling than excluding such evidence obtained by state or local authorities because the public opinion of a community can be more effectively exerted at the local level, than at the federal level.

Frankfurter concluded that "in a prosecution in a State court for a State crime the Fourteenth Amendment does not forbid the admission of evidence obtained by an unreasonable search and seizure."

Justice Black wrote in his concurring opinion that "the federal exclusionary rule is not a command of the Fourth Amendment but is a judicially created rule of evidence which Congress might negate." Black felt that the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to make the Fourth Amendment in its entirety applicable to the states. He stated that "I am unable to agree that the protection of people from overzealous or ruthless state officers is any less essential in a country of `ordered liberty' than is the protection of people from overzealous or ruthless federal officers."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Wolf v. People of the State of Colorado - Significance, Due Process Represents A Living Principle, Only Exclusion Will Deter Violations, Impact