"Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws, or worse, its disregard of the charter of its own existence." — Justice Tom Clark
In 1914 in Weeks v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that evidence seized illegally in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures is inadmissible in federal courts. The so-called exclusionary rule was born. In 1949, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Wolf v. Colorado that the Fourth Amendment is incorporated by the due process of law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and thus now applies to the states. However, the Court declined to apply the exclusionary rule to the states. Thus, evidence seized illegally in violation of the Fourth Amendment was still admissible against the accused in state courts.
In 1957, three Cleveland, Ohio, police officers arrived at Dollree Mapp’s home looking for a fugitive wanted for questioning in connection with a recent bombing and for evidence involving an illegal gambling operation. Mapp refused to admit them, and they had no search warrant authorizing a search of the premises. The officers left, but three hours later, police officers once more arrived at Mapp’s home and knocked on the door. When Mapp did not immediately answer, the police forced the door open and entered. Coming down the stairs from the second floor, Mapp demanded to see a search warrant. One of the officers held up a piece of paper, claiming that it was a warrant. Mapp snatched the piece of paper and stuffed it into her blouse. After a scuffle, the officers recovered the paper and handcuffed Mapp. The police then began a search of the entire house. Mapp’s attorney arrived but was refused entrance or access to his client. The police found no bombing suspect and no evidence of an illegal gambling operation. However, in the course of their search, they turned up some obscene material, possession of which was, at this time, a violation of Ohio law. At Mapp’s trial in an Ohio state court on a charge of possession of obscene literature, no search warrant was ever produced, nor was the failure to produce one explained. Following her conviction, Mapp appealed to an intermediate Ohio appellate court and then to the Ohio Supreme Court. Both Ohio courts upheld her conviction, and she then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court considered the following question:
Is evidence seized illegally in violation of the Fourth Amendment admissible against the accused in a state court?
By a 6-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Mapp’s conviction. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Tom Clark wrote: “Today, we once again examine Wolf’s constitutional documentation of the right to privacy free from unreasonable state intrusion, and, after its dozen years on our books, are led by it to close the only courtroom door remaining open to evidence secured by official lawlessness in flagrant abuse of that basic right, reserved to all persons as a specific guarantee against that very same unlawful conduct. We hold that all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution is, by that same authority, inadmissible in a state court.” In addition, he asserts, “… our holding that the exclusionary rule is an essential part of both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments is not only the logical dictate of prior cases, but it also makes good sense. There is no war between the Constitution and common sense. Presently, a federal prosecutor may make no use of evidence illegally seized, but a state’s attorney across the street may, although he supposedly is operating under the enforceable prohibitions of the same Amendment. Thus the state, by admitting evidence unlawfully seized, serves to encourage disobedience to the Federal Constitution which it is bound to uphold.”
Finally, Justice Clark writes: “There are those who say, as did Justice (then Judge) [Benjamin] Cardozo, that under our constitutional exclusionary doctrine ‘[t]he criminal is to go free because the constable has blundered.’ … In some cases this will undoubtedly be the result. But, as was said in Elkins, ‘there is another consideration — the imperative of judicial integrity.’ … The criminal goes free, if he must, but it is the law that sets him free. … Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws, or worse, its disregard of the charter of its own existence.”
Justice Hugo Black concurred and in a concurring opinion wrote: “Reflection on the problem … in the light of cases coming before the Court since Wolf, has led me to conclude that when the Fourth Amendment’s ban against unreasonable searches and seizures is considered together with the Fifth Amendment’s ban against compelling self-incrimination, a constitutional basis emerges which not only justifies but actually requires the exclusionary rule.”
Justice William O. Douglas also concurred and in a concurring opinion wrote: “As stated in the Weeks case, if evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment can be used against an accused, ‘his right to be secure against such searches and seizures is of no value, and … might as well be stricken from the Constitution.’ ”
Justice John Marshall Harlan III dissented and in a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Felix Frankfurter and Charles Whittaker, wrote: “In overruling the Wolf case, the Court, in my opinion, has forgotten the sense of judicial restraint which, with due regard for stare decisis, is one element that should enter into deciding whether a past decision of this Court should be overruled. Apart from that I also believe that the Wolf rule represents sounder Constitutional doctrine than the new rule which now replaces it.” In addition, Harlan asserted that the federal system permits the states to manage their problems of criminal law enforcement without the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval or disapproval: “Problems of criminal law enforcement vary widely from State to State. … For us the question remains, as it has always been, one of state power, not one of passing judgment on the wisdom of one state course or another. In my view, this Court should continue to forbear from fettering the States with an adamant rule which may embarrass them in coping with their own peculiar problems in criminal law enforcement.”
- StreetLaw.org: Teaching Recommendations — Mapp v. Ohio (1961)
- Constitutional Rights Foundation — Free Lessons Index