“All arrests are at the peril of the party making them.”
—Alexander H. Stephens, August 27, 1863

These days the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution means next to nothing. Consider, for example, the choice offered a few years ago: surveillance under routine, easy “warrants” from the drive-through FISA Court or warrantless surveillance at the whim of George W. Bush and his allegedly boundless reserve of unitary-executive authority. A January 2006 Justice Department memo (“Legal Authorities Supporting the Activities of the National Security Agency . . .”) explained the executive’s claims in mind-numbing and unconvincing detail. But the memo at least suggested how far below any practical service to Americans’ liberty the Fourth Amendment has fallen, and did so by heaping up available (and rather bad) search-and-seizure precedents, many of which arose from the terminally futile war on drugs (pages 37–38). The result is something like “your Constitution on drugs”—with the searchers and seizers on steroids.

Turning to the Fourth Amendment itself, we read: “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.”

This sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? And solid, like it might actually mean something. Alas, no such utopian state of affairs actually obtains. It is possible of course that my elementary school teachers just plain lied to us when they spun golden tales about American freedoms.

Yet surely there is more to it. But if so, what doom befell the Fourth Amendment? We might try looking at various eventful periods when governments—state and federal—felt unusually strong needs to arrest, search, and seize, such as the Civil War, Reconstruction, World War I, Prohibition (see Lacey, in works consulted below), World War II, the Cold War, and (naturally) the war on drugs. It seems, however, that long-running negligence, evasion, and misinterpretation have done more harm to the Fourth Amendment than have various short-run authoritarian panics. Central to this slow but continuous process was the rise of modern policing in the nineteenth century, creating a new institution not foreseen in American constitutions (state or federal) and therefore largely incompatible with them and unaddressed by them (see Roots).

Gradualism and crisis, always headed the same way, have yielded a constitutional trail of tears catalogued in American state and federal case law. The U.S. Supreme Court hardly noticed the Fourth Amendment until the twentieth century. In the Prohibition-era case Carroll v. U.S. (1925), the Court sanctioned searches of private automobiles on the rather forced analogy of ships at sea. (The next time cops pull you over and search your car, you may blame Chief Justice William Howard Taft.) But the amendment’s core meaning survived awhile longer in areas where it was thought to have always applied.

Meanwhile, emboldened by the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court undertook to supervise state police practices from the late 1940s on; it would decide if the states were following the Fourth and other amendments. This new project annoyed the states but did little enough for the public. Examining federal search practices in U.S. v. Rabinowitz (1950), the Court declared the word “unreasonable” the key to the Fourth Amendment. Henceforth the Court would philosophize on the “reasonableness” of searches (“in the circumstances”) and periodically announce our ever-waxing-and-waning rights on the accordion model of civil liberties. Warrants pretty much disappeared.

We have been saddled with this unsatisfactory outcome ever since. The subjectivity of judicial balancing acts, along with fluctuating judicial moods, has made the Court’s understanding of “reasonable” rather less stable than that of the Oxford English Dictionary. The war on drugs has rendered the Court (particularly “conservative” justices) unsympathetic to complaints about searches. The upshot is that the Fourth Amendment is now mostly just another empty marker at which American politicians, bureaucrats, and ideologues can wave when praising the precious freedoms that supposedly cause Americans to be hated.

Legal History vs. Politicized Originalism

In constructing the above account, I have relied heavily on the work of Thomas Y. Davies, professor of law at the University of Tennessee. (The rhetoric is mine.) In essays running from 1999 to 2007 Davies painstakingly reconstructed the late eighteenth-century context of the Fourth Amendment, accounted for its later reinterpretation, and thus described its effective demise. At the same time, he assessed conservative constitutional “originalism,” which he finds harmful.

For Davies the key to Fourth Amendment mysteries is the displacement of eighteenth-century common-law rules by later legal tinkering. As “judge-discovered” law, common law constituted a whole system (albeit uncodified) able to address almost any issue that could get into court, naturally or under a legal fiction. It centered on private prosecutions between parties, who were often large landholders, and its rules aimed at protecting their rights and “quiet enjoyment” of their property. (The radical historian Barrington Moore, Jr., has noted the aristocratic origins of our civil liberties.)

Of course common law adopted, or was forced to adopt, a number of royalist and Parliamentary premises perhaps not essential to its workings, in such matters of State concern as sovereignty, treason, customs, and revenue. Given its environment, common law also incorporated social prejudices regarding women, employees (“servants”), and other disfavored classes, and remained mired in semi-feudal verbiage. Common lawyers worked new content into their “feudal” categories in a way that eased the transition from “feudalism” (for lack of a better term) to English agrarian capitalism and from one form of State to another. In the hands of Whig justices like Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634), locked in battle against Stuart royal prerogative, the common law became a potential weapon for individual and popular rights against State abuses. Coke’s views were very influential in revolutionary America.

In the nineteenth century, though, the common law came to be seen as a barrier both to industrial capitalism and to further expansion of the modern state; for these and other reasons it was interpreted into nothingness or quietly abandoned.

Common-Law Arrest, Search, and Seizure

With common-law rules in view, Davies sees the whole point of the Fourth Amendment as control of warrants to be achieved by defining them strictly. In the common-law environment of the late eighteenth century, warrantless searches—or arrests—were rare and subject to strict conditions. Thus confined, these few warrantless actions hardly threatened public liberty. Let us see why.

First of all, no one—constable or freeman—could arrest or search someone merely for looking “suspicious.” Accusers (public or private) had to have a case before applying for any kind of warrant. To have a case, an actual crime had to have been committed already. An accusation also had to include sworn testimony of one or more witnesses asserting direct, personal knowledge supporting the belief that a named defendant had done the deed. Strung-out informants selling hearsay “evidence” about crimes that might occur in the future were not consulted, although hearsay could be admitted to establish background facts. Judicial action—indictment, issue of warrants—rested on the kinds of evidence described above. Arrest warrants did not normally issue for misdemeanors. The defendant remained at large but would be wise to attend his trial. A search warrant gave permission to look only for the specific things named.

Further, a defendant never appeared as a witness, but could, with or without counsel, impeach the evidence against him and cross-examine witnesses. Accordingly, the rule against self-accusation (self-incrimination) did not protect a defendant’s trial rights, but meant instead that his diary, calendar, papers, and effects—as extensions of himself—were not subject to general ransacking and fishing expeditions. The other side had to make its case without such modern conveniences. Only Parliament claimed to be able to license fishing expeditions (such as the “general warrants” that so nettled colonial Americans) and mainly in the narrow areas of “treason,” customs, and revenue. (The last two items came under admiralty law with its civil [Roman] law rules.) The Fourth Amendment sought to limit the ability of Congress to play such games.

There was a short list of warrantless arrests and searches allowed under common law. An officer or freeman who saw a misdemeanor underway in his presence (affray or breach of the peace) could make an arrest. Someone traveling at night could be detained overnight to account for himself. In “hot pursuit” of a fleeing felon who had committed an actual crime, an officer or freeman could “break” (into) a house. Here again is the combination of actual crime and personal knowledge. There were a few other complications, but they and the above-mentioned practices were rooted in common sense and had definite boundaries.

Under common-law rules arrests were few and far between. In a system based on enforcement by private parties (freemen), or by constables with few additional powers, defendants could sue for “personal trespass” anyone who brought a bad prosecution. Logically enough, a right to resist false arrest also existed. (Nowadays the concept of false arrest is nearly dead and resistance is not generally recommended.) Damages for bad prosecutions were a useful incentive for keeping peace officers and private prosecutors reasonably careful. Tightly drawn warrants, where required, actually protected officers from resistance or suit.

Since arrests were few and generally followed indictment—and that on real evidence—defendants not formally accused were seldom detained. Hence modern dilemmas involving interrogation seldom arose. Asking questions was a judicial function carried out at trial. Constables, who were considered judicial (not executive) officers, had little discretionary authority and few occasions for third-degree Q&A sessions in the back room. And of course common law had no plea bargaining, that ubiquitous, contemporary solution of “overworked” courts that Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton refer to as a form of torture.

In the United States, federalism set further limits. Only a few matters fell under federal jurisdiction, fewer still under exclusive federal jurisdiction. At the state level special language in revolutionary-era state constitutions about the “law of the land” or “due process of law”—“terms of art”—protected and perhaps “constitutionalized” common-law rules of arrest, search, and seizure. (“Due course of law” referred to trial procedures.) At the federal level specific constitutional language in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and elsewhere served a similar purpose. And in practice America avoided what Jeffersonians most feared: a federal claim to enforce the whole common law, which potentially reached everything under the sun. The objects of federal action were limited in number, and the claim of extreme federalists to general common-law jurisdiction failed. But the common-law rules (“due process,” “law of the land”) seemed well entrenched at both levels of government. Could courts and legislatures legally (“constitutionally”) throw away these protections? It is hard to say what informed legal opinion would have said on this point in 1790. Later, of course, courts and legislatures contrived to do exactly that.

Rise and Fall of the Fourth Amendment

The framers’ quest to establish certain common-law rights largely failed. The disjunction between the clauses of the Fourth Amendment encouraged the leap to a “reasonableness” standard. In fact, as Davies shows, the words “unreasonable searches and seizures” were Revolutionary-era rhetoric condemning British general warrants of the 1760s and 1770s as without reason (outside of reason) and therefore illegal and unconstitutional; they were not meant to license future judicial speculation. The core ideas of the Fourth Amendment were better expressed in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 and the Ohio Constitution of 1802. Davies speculates that James Madison’s innovative phrase, “probable cause,” was meant to allow a little leeway for customs and revenue enforcement, which already enjoyed partial exemption from common-law rules. (A warehouse, for example, did not enjoy the same immunities from search and seizure as a private dwelling.) Still, even Madison’s slightly weakened version meant something, although “probable cause” (taken by itself) had a big future as a means of reducing restrictions on power to a nullity.

In Davies’s view the Fourth Amendment unraveled for several reasons. Judicial and legislative amnesia undercut the common-law rules. With growing industrialization, capitalists feared workers, Protestants feared Irish immigrants, and most people feared property crime more than they feared the State. To allay these fears and address some genuine problems caused by overcrowding, urban elites created police forces in major American cities by the 1830s. In eighteenth-century terms these new bodies were “standing armies.” Their practices brought about pressure for revised rules of arrest, search, and seizure, and new rules encouraged the new police practices. Davies speculates that the rise of “relativistic and probabilistic notions of truth and proof,” diminished reliance on oaths, and fear of too few convictions also eroded the old common-law regime.

Finally, state and federal courts rather forcibly dragged “due process” into property law—rather notoriously in Dred Scott (1857), with its substantive due process for slaveholders—with a little left over for trial procedures. “Due process” of arrest, search, and seizure receded into the shadows. In search of improved ideas, American state courts looked to Britain, where since 1780 judges had been adjusting the rules in favor of industrialism and modern State practices. (Right-wing commentators who gripe about “foreign law” influences ought to investigate this connection.) For once the federal government was fairly innocent. Precedents that undermined the old common-law regime largely trickled up from the states, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. The upward trickle was slow at first: Down to 1935 federal marshals still had to have proper warrants to make an arrest.

Here then is today’s Fourth Amendment as seen by a life-form afflicted with supreme-judicial eye syndrome:

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.

(As this ocular condition worsens, all but a few objects dwindle into dim grayness.)

On Davies’s argument the view that the Fourth Amendment came into its own from the mid-twentieth century forward, when reasonableness took center stage, puts the cart well before the horse. And yet the Fourth Amendment cannot really be recovered. This is where good legal history—concrete originalism—leaves us. Potentially beneficial constitutional provisions are of little use today, even when their meanings can be reconstructed in legal-historical context. We can’t go back, since “activist” judges and legislators have worked for almost 200 years to institutionalize a legal regime with only slight resemblance to any original plan.

Can Anything Be Done?

Oddly enough, nineteenth-century Anglo-American legal bragging about freedom crested at roughly the time when many common-law rules worth saving were on the way out. Common law had reactionary social biases, to be sure, but an accelerated “trickle-down”—to everyone—of important rights that common law protected might have been preferable to their elimination. Purging common law of its English royalist and absolutist accretions was precisely the goal of St. George Tucker’s annotated edition of Blackstone (1803). And there was no reason to stop with Tucker’s “republicanized” Blackstone. More right than wrong on this, Murray Rothbard wrote that the common law minus some “statist accretions” fairly approximated a libertarian law code. Thinkers outside the mainstream periodically rediscover the radical potential of English law: people like Gerrard Winstanley, John Lilburne, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Lysander Spooner, and others closer to our own time. They may not agree with one another, but their example is interesting.

This is the path not taken. Most arrests and searches today are without warrant, and getting a formal warrant is fairly easy. Concrete, sworn personal knowledge has yielded to vague (“reasonable”) suspicion or whimsy as a “standard.” Once we enjoyed rules that provided for concrete privacy. By the 1960s privacy seemed so imperiled that the Supreme Court with its usual jobbery was driven to invent an artificial “right of privacy” just to restore some balance. Later, “originalist” conservative justices wrathfully informed us that passage of a law by Congress is nine-tenths of “due process” (you voted, didn’t you?) and the rest is enforcement—stern law-and-order formalism indeed. Translated, conservative “due process” seems to leave us subject to arrest, search, or seizure at the whim of any functionary capable of forming a whim.

Americans have let themselves be systematically excluded from land, from effective political participation, and from effective legal participation. When collapse of the new-model system comes, as one day it must, we may perhaps give ourselves a new constitution. Where might we begin? Chapter XXIX of Magna Carta looks rather promising.

Works Consulted

Thomas Y. Davies, “Recovering the Original Fourth Amendment,” Michigan Law Journal (1999), and “Correcting Search-and-Seizure History: Now-Forgotten Common-Law Arrest Standards” [&c], Mississippi Law Journal (2007). (These two are essential. See also Davies in Wake Forest Law Review (2002), 239ff, Tennessee Law Review (2003), 987ff, Brooklyn Law Review (2005), 105ff, and Brooklyn Law Review (2007), 557ff.)

Morton Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law (1992).

Theodore B. Lacey, “The Supreme Court’s Fluctuating Reaction to National Prohibition in Fourth Amendment Decisions from 1920–1933” (Senior Thesis, Princeton University, 2005).

Roger Roots, “Are Cops Constitutional?” Seton Hall Constitutional Law Journal (2001).

St. George Tucker, “Of the Unwritten, or Common Law of England,” in View of the Constitution of the United States (1999 [1803]), 313–369.

(All the above except Horwitz may be found online.)