Criminal Constitution: the Fourth Amendment

January 1, 2021 | By Shane Phelps Law
Criminal Constitution: the Fourth Amendment

The United States Constitution is the foundation of law in America. Our entire justice system abides by the words written in the Bill of Rights, but what specific regulations and protections apply to the accused? Join us as we take a deep dive into constitutional criminal law with part one of our Criminal Constitution Series.

"Every Man's House Is His Castle"

Privacy and property rights are hallmarks of the early days of our nation. Introduced in 1789, the Fourth Amendment is the basis for jurisprudence and criminal procedure that we still follow today. Jurisprudence, or the rule of law, sets up the parameters for a criminal investigation.

Specifically, the Fourth Amendment protects U.S citizens from "unlawful search and seizure." This means that law enforcement cannot search your house unless there is evidence to suggest criminal activity or possession of illegal goods.

Probable Cause

To get an official warrant for a search, police need to have probable cause. Probable cause is a legal term for the conditions that warrant an arrest. Essentially, law enforcement officers must have objective circumstances or clear evidence to suggest criminal activity.

For example, a law enforcement officer is at a traffic stop when a vehicle speeds by. They proceed to pull the car over and request the driver's license and registration. As the officer is checking for a criminal record, they find that not only is the vehicle a match for a stolen vehicle, but the driver has a history of car theft. The driver also closely resembles the suspect witnesses saw steal the car. At this point, most reasonable people would say that this person is the suspect in question – this is probable cause.

Probable cause does not always mean there is evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt to prove guilt. Many cases are like the above example; the officer notices evidence that suggests the possibility of criminal activity and arrests the suspect.

That said, the Fourth Amendment protects you from search or seizure without probable cause. If you are searched for no reason, your rights have been violated.

Inspiration for the Fourth Amendment

Surprisingly, the Fourth Amendment comes from a long-held protectiveness of personal property that was enforced in England as far back as 1603. Saman's Case was a civil case that led to due process and protected the rights of landowners from unlawful entry by the King's agents.

The Entick v. Carrington case shows the legal recourse for holding law enforcement accountable. Entick filed a lawsuit against state officers who he claimed raided his house without probable cause. The court ruled that the warrant was not issued in good faith or evidence.

Today, Entick v. Carrington is a hallmark case that the U.S. Supreme Court looks to when interpreting the Fourth Amendment.

Famous Fourth Amendment Cases

Throughout our history, several important Fourth Amendment cases have made their way to the Supreme Court.

  • Katz v. the United States was a case in 1967 where the petitioner, Katz, argued that attaching a recording device to a public phone booth violates the Fourth Amendment. Federal agents were investigating Katz for illegally transmitting gambling information across state lines. As part of their investigation, they attached a device to Katz's phone booth as he made the call. Katz was convicted under an eight-count indictment based on the evidence collected at the phone booth, but Katz argued that the agents lacked sufficient evidence to warrant the search. The Court rejected his case noting the lack of intrusion into the phone booth.
  • Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz shows that you can dispute the law and succeed. Michigan police proposed a series of highway sobriety checkpoints in 1990 that would allow officers to investigate drivers for possible intoxication. Sitz argued that the checkpoints violate the Fourth Amendment because police would be looking for criminal activity without evidence to back their suspicions up. The court ruled in favor of Sitz, but the Supreme Court ruled later that generally, checkpoints do not violate drivers' rights and, in fact, protect them from drunk drivers.

While these are by no means the only cases, they show the scope of the Fourth Amendment. From traffic checkpoints to surveillance, the Fourth Amendment protects you from unlawful search or seizure.

Individuals who are convicted based on evidence collected through unethical means could have a Fourth Amendment case. Contact Shane Phelps Law. for more information.