Passed by Congress September 25, 1789. Ratified December 15, 1791. The first 10 amendments form the Bill of Rights.
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.
Protection against Unreasonable Search and Seizure: The Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials. A search can mean everything from a frisking by a police officer to a blood test to a search of an individual’s home or car. A seizure occurs when the government takes control of an individual or something in his or her possession. Items that are seized often are used as evidence when the individual is charged with a crime.
The Fourth Amendment imposes certain limitations on police investigating a crime and prevents the use of illegally obtained evidence at trial. But it does not restrict all searches. For example, courts have ruled that school officials may search school lockers and require that students who participate in extracurricular activities undergo random drug testing.
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Colonial Americans were intimately familiar with the invasive power of government. British officials ransacked their homes and arrested them without warrants. The purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to prevent such arbitrary actions and protect Americans’ privacy against the government. In the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, the Fourth Amendment secures “the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” Therefore, the Fourth Amendment requires that searches and seizures must be reasonable, and that warrants for searches and arrests must be specific. One of the most controversial Fourth Amendment questions is whether evidence from an illegal search should be excluded at a criminal trial. The Supreme Court is constantly trying to find the right balance under the Fourth Amendment between catching criminals and protecting privacy.
Linda R. Monk, J.D., is a constitutional scholar, journalist, and nationally award-winning author. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she twice received the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, its highest honor for law-related media. Her books include The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution, Ordinary Americans: U.S. History Through the Eyes of Everyday People, and The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide. For more than 25 years, Dr. Monk has written commentary for newspapers nationwide, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, and Huffington Post. In addition, she has appeared on MSNBC, C-SPAN, and NPR.