5 Federal Court Cases That Weakened The 4th Amendment

“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 to the United States Constitution

The 4th Amendment has been weakened significantly over the years in an effort to allow the use of roadblocks as a law enforcement tool.

These five federal court cases were instrumental in that unfortunate process:

1) US v. MARTINEZ-FUERTE (read full text)

This is a border-related case that incrementally increased law enforcement’s ability to avoid Fourth Amendment restrictions. The court permits the use of roadblocks several miles inland from national borders under the following rationale:

  • There aren’t feasible alternatives (in their opinion).
  • It is a known and ongoing roadblock so travelers can avoid it if they want to.
  • And, supposedly motorist fear and surprise is minimal because this is an established roadblock with clear evidence of enforcement authority.

These themes will be repeated in subsequent cases as if they are supported by scientific findings, rather than the off-hand personal opinions of court justices, of which they are.

2) DELAWARE v. PROUSE 1979 (read full text)

This is the case that pulls together the two themes that have merged in the dispute over when it is permissible to stop motorists without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. The court re-affirmed that individual officers cannot randomly stop motorists, just because they don’t have anything better to do with their time. They must have at least reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle and question the driver.

However, the court volunteered that all the issues that made such random stops “unreasonable” under the Fourth Amendment could be remedied by setting up formal roadblocks. This was a loud and clear signal from the court that roadblocks were OK as long as they were organized and systematic in their administration and implementation.

3) TERRY v. OHIO 1968 (read full text)

This case established three important precedents:

Stopping a person through the use of police authority, even though an arrest is not commenced, is a “seizure” for Fourth Amendment purposes. “Patting down” a suspect in search of arms is a “search” for Fourth Amendment purposes.

However, this is the case that determined search and seizure are permissible WITHOUT probable cause. A lesser standard, “reasonable suspicion” will heretofore be considered sufficient to permit search and seizure.

This is a clear departure from the standard that defined the term “reasonable” as it related to the Fourth Amendment. “Unreasonable” searches and seizures were events that could not be supported by probable cause standards and were therefore unconstitutional. Allowing search and seizure without probable cause was a major emasculation of the Fourth Amendment that has led to the continual erosion of privacy rights.

4) BROWN v. TEXAS (read full text)

Two police officers, while cruising near noon in a patrol car, observed appellant and another man walking away from one another in an alley in an area with a high incidence of drug traffic. They stopped and asked appellant to identify himself and explain what he was doing. One officer testified that he stopped appellant because the situation “looked suspicious, and we had never seen that subject in that area before.”

The officers did not claim to suspect appellant of any specific misconduct, nor did they have any reason to believe that he was armed. When appellant refused to identify himself, he was arrested for violation of a Texas statute which makes it a criminal act for a person to refuse to give his name and address to an officer “who has lawfully stopped him and requested the information.”

Appellant’s motion to set aside an information charging him with violation of the statute on the ground that the statute violated the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments was denied, and he was convicted and fined.

5) MICHIGAN v. SITZ (read full text)

This is the culmination of three decades of cases that lead to the disintegration of the Fourth Amendment as it applies to motorists, or anyone on public thoroughfares or areas deemed open to the public.

By bringing all the pieces together the court fashioned a decision based on half-truths, suppositions, baseless opinions and a determined effort to introduce the use of roadblocks as a standard means of controlling human behavior in the United States.

There was barely a pretence that roadblocks would “catch” large numbers of drunk drivers.

Here the court repeated its previous findings; roadblocks are a “minor inconvenience,” they create minimal fear and apprehension, abusive discretion in minimized by requiring administrative oversight, and by balancing the “benefits” that derive from roadblocks against the infringement of individual rights the state gains more than the individual loses.

The high profile “drunk-driving problem” was the ideal venue to exercise this decision.

This information was compiled from the NMA’s Roadblock Registry website, www.roadblock.org.

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