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See v. City of Seattle


The rulings of See and Camara broadened application of Fourth Amendment protection. They established that fire, health, and building inspections were "searches." Therefore, government officials must obtain warrants for administrative entry for both private residences and commercial properties not open to the public. However, the Court also created substantially new and different standards for obtaining such warrants. The warrants required something less than the normal probable cause and "particularity" associated with criminal investigations. First, "probable cause" was redefined to simply mean "reasonableness" of routine inspections, rather than requiring a detailed level of knowledge about the condition of the property. The lesser degree of proof was required since inspections were considered by the Court neither personal in nature nor focused on a crime and involved limited invasion of privacy. Secondly, the "particularity" requirement of the Amendment was also altered since the desire was to inspect a large number of properties rather than targeting any specific one. In essence, suspicionless searches were recognized.

Following the See decision, the Court identified several exceptions to the warrant requirements. Businesses subject to pervasive government regulation did not enjoy the same Fourth Amendment protections. These included establishments covered by liquor laws as decided in Colonnade Catering Corp. v. United States (1970) and gun dealers in United States v. Biswell (1972). Operating such businesses posed an "implied consent" to warrantless inspections. In Michigan v. Tyler (1978) the Court ruled that fire investigators and firefighters did not need warrants to investigate a fire during or immediately after a fire, including efforts to fight a fire. However, any further entries at the site of a fire would require warrants if access was not granted. On the other hand like See, the Court found in Marshall v. Barlow, Inc. (1978) that when owners object to occupational health and safety inspections in nonpublic work areas warrants are required.

Prior to the 1960s, concepts of protecting privacy under the Fourth Amendment required warrants only when government officials were physically intruding actual property. The Court, later in 1967 after See, significantly expanded Fourth Amendment protections once again in the Katz v. United States decision. The Court transformed the Fourth Amendment from a property-based to a privacy-based system. Warrants became necessary if the individual had a reasonable expectation of privacy from government surveillance and confrontation. Even if a person was in a public place they may be constitutionally protected.

Implications for administrative inspections were substantial. For example, use of drug sniffing dogs for random searches in public schools and airport luggage areas called forth issues of safeguarding the privacy of persons from arbitrary invasions by government officials. However, in 1979 the Court ruled the Fourth Amendment had only limited application in public schools since school officials act as surrogate parents. Such warrantless searches were lawful. In 1995 the Court in Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton upheld random, suspicionless drug testing of athletes by finding that a school's interest in deterring drug abuse outweighed students' rights. Young students did not have adult rights. Regarding other public places, President Bill Clinton in 1994 pressed for warrantless searches of apartments in public housing projects to fight crime.

Airline safety led to two applications of search. One, clearly warrantless, involved the screening and possible search of passengers prior to boarding airlines. Later in the 1990s concerns increased regarding the sale of unsafe `counterfeit' airplane parts to airlines. In 1995 the Federal Aviation Administration began escalating its search and seizure activities.

Another issue focused on police aerial surveillance. Legal scholars contended that if persons had a reasonable expectation of privacy, then governmental aerial surveillance should be subject to warrants. In Dow Chemical Co. v. United States (1986) the Court ruled that aerial photographs used to detect possible Clean Air Act violations did not constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment when no effort was made to protect against the aerial surveillance. The use of heat imagery techniques for environmental regulatory compliance in the 1990s faced similar concerns.

Critics claimed the primary purpose of administrative inspections was not to apprehend violators of laws or to compile information for prosecution, but to improve the health and safety of the nation's citizens. However, the Court found the threat of prosecution was still present if compliance with regulation did not result. The Court commonly found that laws addressing public health and safety merely expressed public interest in conducting related compliance inspections. They normally did not state such inspections should occur without warrants.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972See v. City of Seattle - Significance, Protection From Administrative Searches, Impact, Related Cases