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The 4th Amendment
and Related Supreme Court Decisions
by Erowid
v 4.0 - Apr 30, 2009
The Supreme Court's decisions regarding how the State and its law enforcement officers may invade the privacy of individuals play a key role in the interactions between private citizen and police.
Amendment IV of the Federal Constitution - "The Right to Privacy"

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.



Pro Privacy Decisions

Arizona v. Gant, 07-542 April 21, 2009
[5-4 : Stevens, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Scalia (majority) / Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Breyer (minority)]
Police arrest a man for driving on a suspended license after he pulls into his own driveway. He is handcuffed and locked into the back of the patrol car and then his car is searched. The officers find a gun and cocaine in the car. The Supreme Court, rejecting the previous "Belton" precedent, ruled that the search was not reasonable because it could not be justified as either related to the traffic offense or related to officer safety.

Lawrence v. Texas, 02-102 June 23, 2003
[6-3 : Kennedy, O'Connor, Souter, Ginsburg, Stevens (majority) / Scalia, Thomas, Rehnquist (minority)]
After a police officer finds two men having sex together in their home, they are charged with violating Texas's laws against homosexual sex. The Court ruled that the Texas laws were invalid because they violated the Equal Protection Clause by criminalizing conduct among disapproved sub-populations (the same act would have been legal for a heterosexual couple) and most of the majority (excluding O'Connor) found that there was a 4th Amendment privacy protection for intimate, private, consensual, adult acts.

Minnesota State ONLY: Minnesota State vs Fort, May 1, 2003.
Minnesota Supreme Court rules that "consent searches" during traffic stops are unconstitutional because they violate the requirement that searches be reasonable. Searches without reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity are banned.

Illinois Supreme Court Only : Illinois vs Cox, Dec 2002
Illinois State Supreme Court blocks a search pursuant to a dog sniff after a traffic stop. Although the decision is confusingly argued, they appear to invalidate suspicionless dog sniff searches:
"Moreover, were we to accept the State's contention that the dog-sniff test was permissible, we would be endorsing a drug-sniff test at every stop for a traffic violation... In sum, Officer McCormick did not have "specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences therefrom," reasonably warranted an extended detention of defendant's vehicle, and the ensuing drug-sniff test. He did not have even a hunch that defendant was engaged in criminal activity to support the call to Deputy Zola. Given these circumstances, if we held that Officer McCormick was justified in calling the canine unit, we would clearly support the view that police officers can resort to the use of canine units at every traffic stop."

New Jersey State ONLY: State of New Jersey vs SJ Courty, March 4 2002.
[5-0: Coleman J, Chief Justice Poritz DT, Long V, & Zazzali JR with Stein J concurring.]
New Jersey state Supreme Court found that "consent searches" during traffic stops, where individuals are asked for consent to search themselves or their vehicles are unconstitutional without reasonable, articulable suspicion of a crime.

KYLLO v. UNITED STATES (99-8508) 190 F.3d 1041 June 11, 2001
[5-4 : Scalia, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer / Stevens, Rehnquist, OConnor, Kennedy]
After suspecting Kyllo of growing cannabis, police officers scanned his home with infra-red imaging equipment and found a suspicious heat signature on a wall of his garage. They used this evidence to get a search warrant, which led to his conviction for growing cannabis. The Supreme Court ruled that infrared imaging of homes (or other high-tech scanning) is unconstitutional without a warrant.

Ferguson v City of Charleston (99-936) 186 F.3d 469: March 21, 2001
The Court stopped a South Carolina hospital from secretly drug testing pregnant women and turning over the results to the police.

INDIANAPOLIS v. EDMOND (99-1030) 183 F.3d 659: November 28, 2000
The Court stopped Indiana from setting up roadblocks for the explicit purpose of warrantless drug searches.

KNOWLES v. IOWA (000 U.S. 97-7597) : December 8, 1998 (9-0)
The Court cancelled an Iowa state law that gives "officers authority to conduct a full-blown search of an automobile and driver where they issue a citation instead of making a custodial arrest." In this case a man was pulled over for speeding and without his consent his car and person were fully searched. The court ruled this to be an unacceptable breach of the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.

MINNESOTA v. DICKERSON (508 U.S. 366) : June 7, 1993 (7-2)
A key decision disallowing weapons searches resulting in finding non-weapon contraband. A man stopped for being in a suspicious area is given a "Terry Patdown" (weapons search) and found to have some small thing in his pocket, which the policeman removed and found to be a crack-rock. The Supreme Court ruled that the in order to determine whether the item was crack or not required a further, unwarranted search and was not acceptable by 4th Amendment standards.

MINNESOTA v. OLSON (495 U.S. 91) : April 18, 1990 (7-2)
A decision finding that guests in homes have constitutional privacy protections. In this case the defendant was staying with a friend when the police arrived and surrounded the home on a sunday afternoon. The police phoned the home and the resident told the police the defendent wasn't there after which the police burst into the home to find the defendant hiding in a closet. The Supreme Court ruled that breaking into the home without a warrant was unlawful.

ARIZONA v. HICKS : March 3, 1987 (6-3)
A decision to require probable cause for searches, continuing the strong 4th Amendment standard which requires more than just suspicion to allow a search. In this case, the police had lawfully entered an apartment and saw an expensive stereo, which an officer assumed to be stolen because of the neighborhood and other contributing factors (a shotgun and black mask in the room). The police proceeded to move and search the stereo for serial numbers, which they discovered were stolen. The Court ruled that the police officer's acts with the stereo constituted a search and the police would need to meet the "probable cause" standard in order to lawfully conduct a search of the private equipment.

YBARRA v. ILLINOIS (444 U.S. 85) : November 28, 1979 (6-3)
Another decision making clear that a Terry Search for weapons cannot be used as a pretext for continued searching of a person. The case of a man who was in a bar that was being legally searched by police for heroin. He was patted for weapons as were all the other patrons in the bar and was found to have "a cigarette pack with objects in it" in his pants pocket. The police pulled the cigarette pack from his pocket and found heroin. The Supreme Court ruled that this was an unreasonable search and seizure.

Searches for weapons should always be predicated on a reasonable belief that a suspect may be threatening. "The Terry case created an exception to the requirement of probable cause, an exception whose 'narrow scope' this Court 'has been careful to maintain.'6 Under that doctrine a law enforcement officer, for his own protection and safety, may conduct a patdown to find weapons that he reasonably believes or suspects are then in the possession of the person he has accosted. Nothing in Terry can be understood to allow a generalized [444 U.S. 85, 94] 'cursory search for weapons' or, indeed, any search whatever for anything but weapons. The 'narrow scope' of the Terry exception does not permit a frisk for weapons on less than reasonable belief or suspicion directed at the person to be frisked, even though that person happens to be on premises where an authorized narcotics search is taking place." Justice Sterwart, YBARRA v. ILLINOIS, 444 U.S. 85 (1979)



Anti Privacy Decisions

ILLINOIS v. CABBALES (03-923) : Jan 24, 2005 (6-2) A man stopped for speeding had his car sniffed by a drug dog while he was being issued a ticket, was not detained for longer than he normally would have to wait for the dog. Dog alerted on the car, the car was searched and cannabis was found in the trunk. The U.S. Court overturned the Illinois Supreme Court and found: "A dog sniff conducted during a concededly lawful traffic stop that reveals no information other than the location of a substance that no individual has any right to possess does not violate the Fourth Amendment."

BOARD OF EDUCATION OF POTTAWATOMIE COUNTY v. EARLS (01-332) : June 27, 2002 (5-4) Supreme Court ruled that any extracurricular activity is cause for drug testing in public schools.

ATWATER v. LAGO VISTA (99-1408) : April 24, 2001 (5-4) A woman was stopped for not wearing her seatbelt while driving with her children. The police officers "pulled Atwater over, verbally berated her, handcuffed her, placed her in his squad car, and drove her to the local police station, where she was made to remove her shoes, jewelry, and eyeglasses, and empty her pockets. Officers took her 'mug shot' and placed her, alone, in a jail cell for about an hour, after which she was taken before a magistrate and released on bond." Atwater sued, arguing that this type of treatment as unreasonable and therefore a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Souter, writing for the 5-4 majority said that the police may arrest and mistreat them at any time, so long as they have reasonable suspicion that even the smallest infraction has been committed.

FLORIDA v. WHITE (000 U.S. 98-223) : May 17, 1999 (7-2)
Two months after officers observed respondent using his car to deliver cocaine, he was arrested at work on unrelated charges. At that time, the police seized his car without securing a warrant because they believed the car was subject to forfeiture under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act (Act). During a subsequent inventory search, the police discovered cocaine in the car. Respondent was then charged with a state drug violation. The Court ruled in another terrible decision that police may seize a car anytime they like if they have probable cause to believe it has ever been involved in any crime. A bit of Humor by The Onion that came out soon after this decision.

WYOMING v. HOUGHTON (000 U.S. 98-184) : April 5, 1999 (6-3)
A decision allowing searches of passenger's purse with probable cause against the driver, when the passenger was not holding the purse.

MINNESOTA v. CARTER (000 U.S. 97-1147) : December 1, 1998 (6-3)
The Court made a bizarre ruling that unless guests in a home are staying over night, they have no legitimate expecation of privacy from the spying eyes of police. In this case a policeman peeked through the closed blinds into a private residence in an apartment complex and saw some people bagging white powder. The officer arrested then men as they left the building. The court held that "Any search which may have occurred did not violate their Fourth Amendment rights. Because respondents had no legitimate expectation of privacy, the Court need not decide whether the officer's observation constituted a 'search'." Ugly as hell.

MARYLAND v. WILSON (000 U.S. 98-184) : February 19, 1997
One of the recent decisions by Rehnquists fascist court allowing police to order passengers to exit a vehicles pulled over for traffic stops without even any suspicion of danger, threat, or wrongdoing. See PENNSYLVANIA v. MIMMS

FLORIDA v. BOSTICK (000 U.S. 89-1717) : June 20, 1991 (6-3)
A decision allowing police sweeps of busses which are recognized as "are inconvenient, intrusive, and intimidating." Despite being trapped in his seat at the back of a bus by several officers without any probable cause, the defendent should have known that he was "free to leave" and had the right to deny any and all requests by the police for information and searching his belongings.

OLIVER v. US (466 US 170) : April 17, 1984 (6-3)
In a nightmarish decision going against all reasonable standards of privacy, Reagan's fascist court ruled that police are exempt from private property trespassing restrictions and may search any area of private property, even when there are fences and No Trespassing signs, except for the area immediately around "the home".

MICHIGAN v. LONG (463 U.S. 1032) : July 6, 1983 (6-3)
The court allowed a 'weapons search' of a vehicle to as a means of 'protecting' the officers who had detained a man who had driven into a ditch and appeared intoxicated. The man's car contained a pouch of cannabis and he was arrested. The Supreme Court ruled "The circumstances of this case justified the officers in their reasonable belief that respondent posed a danger if he were permitted to reenter his vehicle. Nor did they act unreasonably in taking preventive measures to ensure that there were no other weapons within respondent's immediate grasp before permitting him to reenter his automobile. The fact that respondent was under the officers' control during the investigative stop does not render unreasonable their belief that he could injure them."

UNITED STATES v. ROSS (456 U.S. 798) : June 1, 1982 (6-3)
A huge and terrible decision by the High Court which explicitly attempted to allow searches of any containers inside any vehicle on the basis of a police officer's assertion of probable cause, totally circumventing the 4th Amendment's warrant requirement. Thurgood Marshall's dissent is extremely good.

NEW YORK v. BELTON (453 U.S. 454) : July 1, 1981 (5-4)
The court allowed an officer to unzip a zipped jacket pocket and remove the contents of the pocket from a jacket left in the backseat of a car after he had arrested the driver and passengers. The court revised the Chimel v. California standard which said that the State was allowed to search those things within immediate reach of someone when arrested. This opinion also attempted to make broad changes by saying that : "Not only may the police search the passenger compartment of the car in such circumstances, they may also examine the contents of any containers found in the passenger compartment. And such a container may be searched whether it is open or closed, since the justification for the search is not that the arrestee has no privacy interest in the container but that the lawful custodial arrest justifies the infringement of any privacy interest the arrestee may have."

RAWLINGS v. KENTUCKY (448 U.S. 98) : June 25, 1980 (7-2)
A case where it is determined that even if a second-party's 4th Amendment rights are abridged and that breach yields evidence against the first person, that the first person has no 'standing' to prevent the use of property improperly searched. Police had a warrant to arrrest a person, but found several other people when they arrived at the location. They 'smelled marijuana' and got a second warrant to search the actual house, after which they forced a woman to empty her purse which contained a controlled substance. The defendent admitted the drugs were his. The court ruled that despite the fact that the woman had been improperly searched, resulting in materials which later were used to prosecute the defendant, that the defendant could not exclude the evidence because he had no 4th Amendment protection over someone else's purse. Very bad.

PENNSYLVANIA v. MIMMS (434 U.S. 106) : December 5, 1977 (6-3)
The court allowed an officer to routinely order all people stopped for traffic violations out of their car (and presumably all passengers) without any suspicion or cause.

TERRY v. OHIO (396 U.S. 1 : June 10, 1968
A key decision allowing officers to do weapons searches of people during any stop. The "Terry search" or "Terry pat" has become a standard for interacting with 'suspicious' people.