Fourth Amendment Case Decisions of the United States Supreme Court

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.

Cases After 2000

Bond v. United States 529 U.S. 334 (2000)

Steven Dewayne Bond was indicted for conspiracy to possess, and possession with intent to distribute, methamphetamine in violation of a Federal statute. He had been traveling on a Greyhound bus bound for Little Rock, Arkansas from California. When the bus stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, Texas, Agent Cesar Cantu boarded the bus to check on the immigration status of its passengers. Agent Cantu walked from the front of the bus to the back and after verifying the status of the passengers, he began moving back to the front of the bus. As he did, he squeezed the soft luggage passengers had placed in the overhead storage area of the bus.

When Agent Cantu reached Bond's green canvas bag, in squeezing the bag, he felt what he described as a "brick-like" object inside. Bond admitted the bag was his and consented to a search. Inside the bag was a "brick" of methamphetamine wrapped in duct tape and rolled inside a pair of pants.

Bond moved to suppress the seizure of the drugs, arguing that Agent Cantu's seach was illegal. The District Court denied the motion and found him guilty on both counts, sentencing him to 57 months in prison. The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's ruling, holding that "the fact that Agent Cantu�s manipulation of petitioner�s bag was calculated to detect contraband is irrelevant for Fourth Amendment purposes". Therefore, the seizure of the methamphetamine was not a search under the Fourth Amendment.

Chief Justice Rehnquist, in reversing the ruling of the Appeals Court, delivered the opinion of the Court, basing the decision on the analysis of two questions. (1) Did Bond, by his conduct, exhibit an actual expectation of privacy and (2) Was his expectation �one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable"? Rehnquist held that the answer to both questions was yes. First, Bond used an opaque bag and placed it directly above him. Second, Bond's expectation that others would not touch his bag in an "exploratory manner", as Agent Cantu did, was a reasonable expectation under the Fourth Amendment.

Atwater v. City of Lago Vista 532 U.S. 318 (2001)

In March of 1997, Gail Atwater was stopped by Lago Vista police for not wearing a seatbelt. Neither she nor her two children, all in the front seat of her pickup, were using seat belts as required by Texas law. According to reports from eyewitnesses, the officer verbally berated Atwater in a raised voice. Atwater requested that the officer lower his voice and he reportedly replied, "You're going to jail." According to records, Atwater remained calm, did not act in a suspicious manner, did not pose a threat to the officer, and was not engaged in any illegal conduct other than failing to wear a seatbelt.

Atwater was arrested, handcuffed in front of her children, and taken to jail. At the jail, she was photographed and placed in a jail cell for approximately one hour. She was released on $310.00 bond and later paid a $50.00 fine for failing to wear a seatbelt.

Atwater and her husband filed suit alleging that her Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable seizure had been violated because the police arrested her for a crime punishable only by a fine. Because she had admitted guilt by paying the fine, the District Court granted Summary Judgement in favor of the city of Lago Vista dismissing her claim of a Fourth Amendment violation. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's decision, holding that because it was not disputed that the oficer had probable cause to make an arrest, and there was no evidence the arrest was out of the ordinary, it was not unreasonable and not a violation of Atwater's Fourth Amendment protections.

Atwater had argued that at the time of the Constitution's framing, common-law rules forbade warrantless arrests for misdemeanor crimes except in cases of "breach of the peace". She further argued that this was limited to crimes involving or tending toward violence. In delivering the opinion for the Supreme Court, Justice David Souter rejected this claim, noting that "Although this argument is not insubstantial, it ultimately fails." He reasoned that her claims were not supported by an examination of founding-era common-law rules, noting that crimes as diverse and not inherently violent as nightwalking and negligent carriage driving were subject to warrantless arrest in English common-law. Further, he held that an examination of specifically American evidence led to the same conclusion, writing in his opinion "Neither the history of the framing era nor subsequent legal development indicates that the Fourth Amendment was originally understood, or has traditionally been read, to embrace Atwater's position."

Justice Souter further held that Atwater's argument amounted to a request "to mint a new rule of constitutional law forbidding custodial arrest, even upon probable cause, when conviction could not ultimately carry any jail time and the government can show no compelling need for immediate detention." He explained that a case by case determination of government needs would not serve the interests of a balanced Fourth Amendment. In summary, he wrote, "An officer may arrest an individual without violating the Fourth Amendment if there is probable cause to believe that the offender has committed even a very minor criminal offense in the officer's presence.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in a dissenting opinion, held that "The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right to be free from "unreasonable searches and seizures." The Court recognizes that the arrest of Gail Atwater was a "pointless indignity" that served no discernible state interest, ante, at 26, and yet holds that her arrest was constitutionally permissible. Because the Court's position is inconsistent with the explicit guarantee of the Fourth Amendment, I dissent."

Kyllo v. United States 533 U.S. 27 (2001)

In 1992, Federal Agents William Elliott and Dan Haas used a thermal imaging device to scan a triplex in which Danny Kyllo lived. The agents suspected that Kyllo was growing marijuana plants inside the home. Growing marijuana indoors typically requires the use of grow lamps that put off a large amount of heat.

The thermal imaging test was conducted from the passenger seat of Agent Elliott's car. The test showed that an area over a garage and a side wall were substantially warmer than the rest of the house and substantially warmer than other houses in the neighborhood. Based on the results of the test, electricity bills that were higher than the norm for his area, and informant's tips, a Federal Magistrate issued a warrant authorizing a search of Kyllo's residence. The search revealed over 100 marijuana plants growing inside the home. Kyllo was indicted on one count of manufacturing marijuana.

Kyllo was unsuccessful in an attempt to suppress the evidence seized from his home. He later entered a conditional guilty plea retaining his right to appeal. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court remanded the case to the District Court to determine the intrusiveness of the thermal imaging test. The District Court found the imaging devict to be non-intrusive, noting that "the device used cannot penetrate walls or windows to reveal conversations or human activities". The District Court upheld the warrant as valid and affirmed the denial to suppress the evidence seized.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit initially reversed the conviction but after withdrawal of the opinion and a change in membership of the Court, affirmed the District Court's decision. They held that Kyllo had no expectation of privacy because he had made no attempt to conceal the heat detected by the thermal imaging device and, if he had, there still was no reasonable expectation of privacy because the test did not reveal "any intimate details of Kyllo's life".

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court. He reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeals, holding that the imaging test revealed details of a private home that could not have been previously known without physically entering the house. Therefore, the test constituted a seach under the Fourth Amendment and was "presumptively unreasonable without a warrant".

Board of Education v. Earls 536 U.S. 822 (2002)

The Tecumseh, Oklahoma School District has a drug testing policy that requires all middle and high school students who wish to participate in extracurricular activities to undergo a urinalysis that tests for the presence of illegal drugs. At the time of this case, this policy had only been applied to activities sanctioned by the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association. The school district was sued by some students and parents in an attempt to have this policy vacated on Fourth Amendment grounds.

The District Court hearing the suit granted the school District a Summary Judgement (a ruling without a full trial). On appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, holding that the testing of the students was a violation of the Fourth Amendment. They ruled that because the School District had failed to show that there was a drug abuse problem among a sufficient number of students who were to be tested and that the test was suspicionless, the testing program would not have an effect in reducing a problem with illegal drug use.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion for the Supreme Court. In reversing the decision of the Appeals Court, he held that "a probable cause finding is unnecessary in the public school context because it would unduly interfere with maintenance of the swift and informal disciplinary procedures that are needed." He ruled that there need not be suspicion of an individual or individuals for a search of students to be deemed reasonable. He noted the the "special needs" of public schools are beyond the needs of law enforcement. Relying on Vernonia School District v. Acton (1995), Thomas, he concluded that the students affected by the drug testing had a limited expectation of privacy because they voluntarily participated in extracurricular activities. Additionally, the results of the urinalysis were not used to penalize students academically or shared with law enforcement. For these reasons, the drug testing policy was not a significant intrusion on the student's privacy expectations and therefore, was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

In summarizing the decision, Thomas wrote "Within the limits of the Fourth Amendment, local school boards must assess the desirability of drug testing schoolchildren. In upholding the constitutionality of the Policy, we express no opinion as to its wisdom. Rather, we hold only that Tecumseh's Policy is a reasonable means of furthering the School District's important interest in preventing and deterring drug use among its schoolchildren."

In dissent, Justice Ginsburg noted that the Superintendent of the School District had termed the District's drug problem as "not ... major." She held that the testing was not reasonable and, therefore, a violation of the Fourth Amendment because the tests targeted a particular group of students that was not likely to be at risk from the use of illegal drugs.


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© Paul Kelly