In modern society, it is easy to forget where many of our freedoms come from. It is also dangerous to turn a blind eye to history. Civilizations, military commanders, and leaders of nations have ignored history with devastating results.
Because the 4th Amendment is so vitally important to America, it deserves a look into the history behind its inception into the Constitution. The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution was added as part of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791. It deals with protecting people from the searching of their homes and private property without properly executed search warrants. The 4th Amendment specifically provides:
“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.”
The Founders believed that freedom from government intrusion into one’s home was a natural right (one granted from God) and fundamental to liberty. The idea that citizens should be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures goes back far into English history. In 1604, Sir Edward Coke first identified this right. He said that “The house of every one is to him as his castle and fortress, as well for his defence against injury and violence as for his repose.”
During the Colonial era, the King of England looked at the American colonies as simply a financial investment. Britain passed numerous revenue collection bills aimed at generating as much money from the colonists as possible. Obviously, the colonists resented this act by the King and began smuggling operations in order to circumvent the custom taxes imposed by the British Crown.
In response, King George began the use of the conveniently worded “writs of assistance.” These were legal search warrants that were extremely broad and general in scope. British agents could obtain a writ of assistance to search any property they believed might contain contraband goods. They could actually enter someone’s property or home with no notice and without any reason. Agents could interrogate anyone about their use of customed goods and force cooperation of any person. These types of searches and seizures became an egregious affront to the people of the colonies.
These actions by the British Crown would be one the precipitating factors leading to the American Revolution and the eventual forming of our Constitution.
When the 4th Amendment became part of the Constitution, it was originally only applied to the federal government. Later, it was applied to the states through the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Of course, there are many common sense exceptions to the 4th Amendment right to have a properly executed search warrant issued before a search or seizure of private property can be conducted. They are too numerous to list in this column. However, two common examples are (1) a police officer may conduct a pat down search of someone if he or she has observed someone engaging in behavior that would give the officer reasonable, articulable suspicion that a crime has or is being committed; and (2) if a police officer sees someone committing a crime, or believes that he or she has probable cause to suspect someone has committed a crime, the officer may arrest the suspect without a warrant.
Looking back at the reasoning behind liberties in cultures helps to preserve freedoms. It is only when we become disinterested or even indifferent to our Founders that we take a dangerous path toward civilizational decline. We cannot forget why Americans enjoy legal rights like the 4th Amendment.