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Fourth Amendment

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noun
an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, prohibiting unlawful search and seizure of personal property.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

MORE ABOUT FOURTH AMENDMENT

What is the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment is an amendment to the US Constitution that forbids illegal searches and taking of property.

The Constitution of the United States is the document that serves as the  fundamental law of the country. An amendment is a change to something. An amendment to the Constitution is any text added to the original document since its ratification in 1788. The Constitution has been amended 27 times in American history.

The Fourth Amendment states:

“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 Fourth Amendment has been interpreted to mean that the government cannot search or seize you or your property without good reason or a warrant signed by a judge. In practice, the Fourth Amendment limits the actions of police officers, who are government employees. For the most part, police officers can’t search or detain you for no reason. They also cannot enter your home or take your property for no reason.

However, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Fourth Amendment hasn’t been violated if the officer had probable cause to perform a search or seizure without a warrant. Probable cause means that the officer reasonably believed a crime had been committed or there were extreme circumstances, such as a person’s life being in danger. If a police officer sees you commit a crime, for example, they do not need a warrant to search or arrest you.

Additionally, if you consent to an officer’s request of a search or seizure, it is legal. If a police officer asks to search your bag and you say they can, they are not violating your Fourth Amendment rights if they then search your bag.

The Fourth Amendment is often debated and has been at the center of a huge number of Supreme Court cases. Courts have long battled to balance Fourth Amendment rights with police officers’ job of enacting justice and fighting crime. As technology advances, we are likely to see more debate and court cases regarding the Fourth Amendment.

Why is Fourth Amendment important?

The Fourth Amendment is one of 10 amendments included in the Bill of Rights, a set of 10 amendments added to the Constitution almost immediately after that document was put into law. On December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights was ratified by the required three-fourths of the state legislatures and added to the Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment has been interpreted differently throughout its history, as policing and surveillance have changed. When it was written, policing was done by local sheriffs or constables who were only loosely organized. In fact, the Fourth Amendment was based on illegal searches and seizures performed by the British government, not colonial police.

Today, technology causes debates around the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court has ruled that electronic surveillance, such as security cameras and wiretaps, count as a “search,” so the Fourth Amendment applies to them. This means that police (or anyone else) cannot violate your privacy with these devices when it would be unreasonable to do so. For example, the police cannot install surveillance equipment in your house without a warrant. However, a jewelry store that alerts its customers of cameras can legally film them under the reasonable assumption that the store is afraid of theft.

Terrorism has also caused debates related to the Fourth Amendment. In particular, the US Patriot Act, passed following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was a highly controversial act that gave law enforcement increased abilities to conduct surveillance on citizens with the goal of preventing terrorism.

Did you know ... ?

The Fourth Amendment also protects you against being searched by four-legged members of the government. The Supreme Court has ruled that being sniffed by drug-detecting dogs is a violation of the Fourth Amendment if police had no probable cause to allow the dog to smell someone.

What are real-life examples of Fourth Amendment?

Most Americans are familiar with the Fourth Amendment as pushback against overly authoritative police and government activity that has increased in modern times.

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

According to the Fourth Amendment, the police need a warrant to arrest you even if they see you commit a crime.

How to use Fourth Amendment in a sentence

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