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U.S. News
4: No search without a warrant

Wednesday, November 27, 2002


The amendment that forbids searches without a warrant describing what is being sought and what could be seized sat on the books for years, lacking one important thing: a penalty for police and prosecutors who failed to follow it. It was not until 1914 when Fremont Weeks, a suspected bookie, was arrested at a train station in St. Louis and federal marshals let themselves into his home and carted off an array of papers, that the Supreme Court took up the question of what to do when the government ignores constitutional protection. In a landmark ruling, the court decided that the conviction could not stand and that the marshals had to return the documents to Weeks. It became known as the exclusionary rule. In 1949 the court extended the same rule to state law enforcement.

Before the Pittsburgh narcotics squad burst through the door of this home in Brighton Heights in July, they took care to describe their reasons before a judge who would decide if they had sufficient cause. They took away narcotics paraphernalia and arrested two people for cocaine possession. Such a search would have been forbidden without a warrant and, had the warrant been defective, the evidence found would not have been admissible in court.

Amendment IV: 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.

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