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 4th Amendment requires that in order for a government official, such as a police officer, to search a
person's home, business, papers, bank accounts, computer or other personal items, in most cases, he
must obtain a search warrant signed by the proper authority, which usually means by a judge.
In order for a warrant to be issued, someone must affirm to the judge that he has a reasonable belief that a
crime has been committed and that by searching the premises of a particular location, he believes he will
find evidence that will verify the crime. The person submitting this information to the judge is usually a
police officer. The police officer does not have to be correct in his assumption, he just has to have a
reasonable belief that searching someone's private property will yield evidence of the crime.
The judge then reviews the information and if he also believes that the information the officer has
submitted shows probable cause, he will issue the warrant. In order for the warrant to be good, it must
identify the place and the particular items or persons that are to be seized if they are found. A warrant is
not a general order that can be used to search for anything, anywhere the officer wants. It is very specific
about what is being looked for and where the officer can look for it.
History of the 4th Amendment
Sir Edward Coke
The 4th Amendment idea that citizens should be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures goes
back far into English history. In 1604, in the famous Semayne's Case, the Judge, Sir Edward Coke, first
identified this right. He ruled 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."
In this case, it was determined that subjects of the kingdom had the right to be protected from searches and
seizures that were unlawfully conducted, even if they were conducted by the king's representatives. The
case also recognized that lawfully conducted searches and seizures were acceptable. This case
established a precedent that has remained a part of English law ever since.
The most famous English case dealing with the right to freedom from illegal search and seizure is called
Entick vs. Carrington, 1765. In this case, royal representatives had broken into the private home of John
Entick in search of material that was critical of the king and his policies. In the process, they broke into
locked boxes and desks and confiscated many papers, charts, pamphlets, etc. The officers were acting on
the orders of Lord Halifax.
During the trial, Entick charged that the entire search and seizure had been unlawfully conducted, and the
Court agreed. The Court said that Lord Halifax had no standing to issue the order to search the premises,
that probable cause that a crime had been committed had not been demonstrated and that the warrant
allowed a general confiscation of anything the officers found, not specifying exactly what they were to look
for or could seize. In addition, there were no records kept of what the officers seized.
This ruling essentially declared that the government was not allowed to do anything that was not specified
by law. It required the search and seizure be carried out according to the law. It also established that the
right to be able to protect one's private property was an important right to be safeguarded by the
government. In his ruling, Lord Camden, the Chief Justice made this famous statement:
"The great end, for which men entered into society, was to secure their property. That right is preserved
sacred and incommunicable in all instances, where it has not been taken away or abridged by some public
law for the good of the whole. The cases where this right of property is set aside by private law, are various.
Distresses, executions, forfeitures, taxes etc are all of this description; wherein every man by common
consent gives up that right, for the sake of justice and the general good. By the laws of England, every
invasion of private property, be it ever so minute, is a trespass. No man can set his foot upon my ground
without my license, but he is liable to an action, though the damage be nothing; which is proved by every
declaration in trespass, where the defendant is called upon to answer for bruising the grass and even
treading upon the soil. If he admits the fact, he is bound to show by way of justification, that some positive
law has empowered or excused him. The justification is submitted to the judges, who are to look into the
books; and if such a justification can be maintained by the text of the statute law, or by the principles of
common law. If no excuse can be found or produced, the silence of the books is an authority against the
defendant, and the plaintiff must have judgment."
In 1886, in a case called Boyd vs. United States, the Supreme Court of the United States referred to Entick
vs. Carrington as a ''great judgment,'' ''one of the landmarks of English liberty,'' and ''one of the permanent
monuments of the British Constitution.'' This established the Entick decision as a guide to understanding
what the Founding Fathers meant concerning search and seizure laws when they wrote the 4th