The threshold of the Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads in full:
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.
While there is considerable debate over the meaning and intent of this language, all agree that the primary reason it was included in the Bill of Rights was the Framers’ reaction to English abuse of the warrant process in the years preceding the Revolutionary War. Particularly galling to the colonists was the profligate use of “writs of assistance,” which authorized constables to obtain “assistance” in seizing, at their discretion, any “prohibited or uncustomed” goods from houses, shops, and any “other Place.” In contrast to the traditional common law warrant, which was issued by a justice of the peace when a citizen swore there was probable cause to believe stolen property could be found in a particular home, these “general warrants” gave British soldiers carte blanche to search any place they thought might contain contraband. The colonist James Otis called the writ of assistance “the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the most destructive of English liberty, and the fundamental principles of law, that ever was found in an English law book, [because it placed] the liberty of every man in the hands of...
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