Fourth Amendment


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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What is the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects U.S. citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures of property by the government. It also requires a warrant and probable cause in the event of searches and seizures.

How do you pronounce Fourth Amendment?

[ fohrth uhmend-muhnt ]

Where did the Fourth Amendment come from?

The Fourth Amendment is the 4th of 10 Constitutional amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, officially added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791 after it was ratified in 1788. Amendments are changes or additions to the original Constitution.

The Bill of Rights served as a crucial concession to those who refused to sign the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution was drafted in 1787 and needed to be ratified by 9 of the original 13 states to become the law of the land. However, not enough of the then-13 states were initially willing to adopt it, and so a promise to amend it to include clear statements of the people’s rights helped it pass.

What does the Fourth Amendment say?

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.

How to use the Fourth Amendment

“Unreasonable searches” has been interpreted to include not only physical searches but wiretaps and surveillance, and “probable cause” has come to include arbitrary arrest. The amendment helps lay the foundation for privacy laws and protections, which are sometimes called Fourth Amendment freedoms or rights.

Because it’s short and a little vague, the government relies on the Supreme Court to interpret the Fourth Amendment, as it does other aspects of the Constitution and U.S. law. For instance, the court ruled that searches and seizures inside a home were reasonable if the items were in plain view, and that students could be searched by school authorities without a warrant provided the circumstances were reasonable.

The growth of technology has provided new challenges in interpreting the Fourth Amendment and defining legal rights of privacy in the digital age. Some suggest that the rights provided by the Fourth Amendment have been weakened. For instance, your digital purchasing history may not count as protected private information, since it is already shared with credit card companies and banks, and therefore may not require a warrant. However, these issues don’t always fall the same way; in 2014, it was ruled that police do need a warrant to search cell phones found on people when arrested.

More examples of the Fourth Amendment:

“Be like Aaron Tobey, who also stripped down in front of the TSA and was charged with disorderly conduct. Tobey had the fourth amendment written on his chest and the charges were eventually dropped.”
—Rhett Jones, Gizmodo, May 2017

“The ACLU is not involved in the case, but McCoy said while courts have ruled that students in school have weaker fourth amendment rights than the average citizen in the interest of school safety, this situation appears to have been particularly invasive.”
—Madeline Schmitt, KRQE News 13, April 2017

“But what does the Constitution require when the police violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights and discover incriminating evidence hidden in a bedroom or inside the trunk of a car? There’s no easy answer.”
—Tracey Maclin, The Supreme Court and the Fourth Amendment’s Exclusionary Rule, 2012

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.