Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

How well do you know the 4th Amendment?

June 8, 2011 by Jenna Winterle Kehres


If police are outside a house, and they can smell burning marijuana and hear the sounds of evidence being destroyed, are they allowed to enter without a warrant?

Not quite sure?  That’s alright, it’s a tricky issue.  On the one hand, the police have reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed.  But on the other hand, there is our Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects a certain amount of privacy within our own homes.  The situation described above was actually addressed in a recent Supreme Court decision.  Kentucky v. King is just the most recent in a long line of complex decisions that the Supreme Court has had to make in regards to the Fourth Amendment.

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.

Read more at our Interactive Constitution

Upon first reading, the Fourth Amendment may seem simple enough, but 200 years of case law has sure proved otherwise.  Not-so-simple questions begin to arise.  Where is the line between a lawful and an unlawful search?  What counts as “probable cause?”  Who gets to define the word “unreasonable?”  And what about our Facebook profiles?  They don’t exactly fall within the 18th-century categories of “persons, houses, papers and effects,” but the Fourth Amendment still protects our on-line identities…right?

These are questions not just for the members of the Court, but for everyday citizens as well.  So, how good is your own knowledge when it comes to your right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment?  Take a look at the different situations described in the quiz below.  Can you tell which of these searches are Fourth Amendment compliant, and which would be considered illegal invasions of privacy? Pick your answer and then scroll down for the explanations.

Note: hover over the question to see the full text.

The answers

As I said, it’s a tricky subject!  Some of these are tough calls; do you think you came to the same conclusion as the Supreme Court?  Take a look below and see how the Court ruled in each situation.

Number One: Legal Search If you said yes, the police can go ahead and enter the house, then you were right!  This was the ruling of the Supreme Court’s May 16th case Kentucky v. King.  But this decision was certainly a controversial one, and if you disagree with the Court, you have plenty of company.  Lower courts had not ruled in favor of the police, saying that the defendants only began destroying evidence after the police knocked on the door, announcing themselves.  Justice Ginsberg, who had the only dissenting vote, seemed to agree.  She wrote that “The Court today arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in drug cases.  In lieu of presenting their evidence to a neutral magistrate, police officers may now knock, listen, then break the door down, nevermind that they had ample time to obtain a warrant.”

Number Two: Legal Search This search is okay, as far as the Supreme Court is concerned.  In California v. Greenwood the court determined that since garbage bags that have been placed outside are “readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public” that there should be no reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to their contents.

Number Three: Legal Search In New Jersey v. T.L.O., the Supreme Court determined that searches can take place in a public school without a warrant, as long as there is reasonable belief that a crime is being committed.  There are some limits to this, however.  In Safford Unified School District v. Redding the court ruled that a student’s rights were violated when she was strip searched after being accused of possessing pills.

Number Four: Illegal Search In J.W. v. DeSoto County School District, the court found that while confiscating the cell phone was legal, the subsequent search of the phone’s contents was not.

Number Five: Illegal Search Georgia tried this one, but the Court, in Chandler v. Miller, said that since there was no threat to public safety, there were no grounds to require candidates to submit to drug tests.

Number Six: Legal Search The rules on drug testing are a bit different when it comes to school students.  The Supreme Court ruled in Vernonia School Distric 47J v. Acton that schools had the right to require a drug test from any student trying out for a sports team.  Later, in Board of Education v. Earls, the court determined that the same standards applied to all extra-curricular activities. According the Court, not only is no warrant necessary, but the schools don’t even need a “suspicion of wrong doing” to require the tests.

Number Seven: Illegal Search Even though it was a public phone booth, it was also a confined space, complete with a door, and in Katz v. United States the Court determined that the defendant would have had a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”  They ruled that the wiretapping constituted an unlawful search.

Do you agree with the courts decisions?  Leave a comment telling us why or why not!


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