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Privacy, Protection, and the Police: A Look into the Fourth Amendment on the Warren Court

Fourth Amendment rights have long been at the center of criminal procedure controversies in the United States. By recognizing a person’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure, this amendment was inspired by “the extraordinary coupling of Magna Carta to the appealing fiction that a man’s home is his castle—not to be invaded by governing authority.” [1] This notion was later constitutionalized in the United States because of unlawful tax and revenue searches conducted by King George’s representatives in its North American colonies. However, the mass production and utilization of vehicles, technology, and drugs in the twentieth century brought forth the first challenges to the Fourth Amendment in federal court. In fact, the Warren Court broadened its interpretation of the Fourth Amendment by increasing procedural protections for those accused of a crime in both state and federal court. These new interpretations, among others, represented a constitutional revolution, in which the Supreme Court effectively developed public policy by expanding the constitutionally protected rights encompassed within the Due Process Clause in the 5th and later 14th Amendments. Under this clause, the federal government and the states could not deprive citizens of “life, liberty, and property” without due process of law. The fundamental liberties protected by the Due Process clause also include the liberties found in the Bill of Rights, such as the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy and protection from unreasonable search and seizures. Thus, after the Warren Court expanded the accused’s Fourth Amendment rights under the Due Process Clause, liberals and conservatives continue to remain divided on the substantial reforms to police procedure in the 20th century.

Spanning sixteen years and three presidencies, the “Warren Court” era began with the appointment of Justice Earl Warren to the Supreme Court in 1953 and ended with his resignation in 1969. The landmark case Rochin v. California in 1952 first broadened the scope of Fourth Amendment rights and altered police procedure expectations. Suspecting that Richard Rochin was selling drugs, three California police officers broke into his house to find Rochin and his wife lying in bed. Noticing the officers had spotted two capsules on Rochin’s bedside table, Rochin immediately swallowed them to dispose of the evidence. The officers drove Rochin to a hospital and ordered a stomach pump without his consent, after which he threw up two morphine pills. Rochin was subsequently convicted of possession of morphine in the state criminal court. Rochin appealed his conviction by arguing that his circumstances demonstrated an unreasonable seizure and therefore violated his Fourth Amendment rights? To Rochin’s prevail, the Court reversed his conviction and found the police procedure unconstitutional and in violation of the Fourth Amendment. [2] The decision was established as a precedent and inherited by the Warren Court in 1953. Thus, Rochin v. California was the last major ruling and interpretation of the Fourth Amendment before the Warren Era.

Mapp v. Ohio is considered one of the first major Fourth Amendment rights cases heard by the Warren Court. In 1961, police officers in Cleveland, Ohio, investigated Dollree Mapp’s house without a proper search warrant because they believed she was housing a suspected bomber. While they did not find the suspect, the police did procure obscene photographs in her basement. Mapp was arrested for possessing obscene materials and convicted by an Ohio court. At the time, even unlawfully-seized evidence could be used in Ohio state courts, though not in federal court. Arguing that her Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, Mapp took her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ultimately ruled in favor of Mapp; a 6-3 majority held that evidence seized without a warrant and used for state prosecutions violated the “exclusionary rule,” which disallows the use of illegally gathered material in a criminal trial. [3] Despite Mapp’s possession of illegal pictures, the Court maintained a liberal attitude in overturning her conviction.

In successive cases like Warden v. Hayden, the Court explicitly outlined what the Fourth Amendment does and does not concern. In Hayden, Bennie Joe Hayden was convicted of armed robbery after his wife allowed a police officer to search his residence without a warrant and gather incriminating evidence. The Supreme Court had to decide whether the Fourth Amendment differentiated between “merely evidentiary materials”, which are materials that are not directly related to the consequences or processes of the crime such as stolen money or a murder weapon, and “the instrumentalities, fruits, or contraband of [a] crime.”[4] Justice Brennan delivered the Court’s majority opinion against Hayden, holding that because the Fourth Amendment does not specifically identify this distinction, the search for “merely evidentiary materials” was valid. Warden v. Hayden is a prime example of the Warren Court substantiating the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy while also restricting its scope. Notably, the Court also ruled that “judicially approved electronic surveillance created admissible evidence.” This statement would prove central to future cases. [5]

During the 1966 and 1967 terms, “the Court extended the scope of the requirement to obtain a search warrant” in two sets of cases concerning the probable cause of search and electronic surveillance (Powe 404). In Camara v. Municipal Court, a health inspector from the Department of Public Health of San Francisco asked Roland Camara permission to search his residence three times without a warrant. Camara rejected the warrantless search on all three occasions; he was arrested in violation of the San Francisco Housing Code (SFHC) for his refusal. After being denied a petition for hearing by the Supreme Court of California, Camara’s case was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court had to judge whether Sections 503 and 507 of the SFHC, which authorized inspection of private housing and criminalizing refusals to such, violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court held that Camara had a constitutional right under the Fourth Amendment to require a warrant before the inspector could legally search his residence. [6] Similarly, in See v. Seattle, a Seattle resident refused to allow the Seattle Fire Department to perform a routine inspection of his commercial warehouse. See was arrested and convicted for violating the local fire code. [7] In keeping with the precedent established in Camara, Justice White delivered the opinion of the Court that administrative searches mandated a warrant and overruled Frank v. Maryland (Powe 404). The Warren Court continued to extend its liberal ideology in two consequential cases in 1967: Berger v. New York and Katz v. United States. In Berger, a district attorney obtained multiple orders from a judge to wiretap suspects’ phones in a bribery case under a New York statute that permitted eavesdropping on “reasonable grounds”. Berger was convicted as the recordings revealed his involvement in the bribery. But the Supreme Court reversed the conviction, and ruled that conversations are protected by the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy, and the use of electronics to record people requires a search warrant. [8] Katz v. United States highlighted an almost identical issue. Federal agents, who suspected Charles Katz was transmitting illegal gambling advice over the telephone to clients in other states, wiretapped Katz’s phone booth. The case presented the question of whether the Fourth Amendment requires police to obtain a warrant to wiretap a public phone booth. The majority opinion wrote that “The Fourth Amendment protects people, not places,” holding that Katz’s conversations were constitutionally protected, and thus required a search warrant in order to record. [9] Although Berger and Katz produced slightly more narrow opinions in that “they looked to supervision, not elimination, of electronic surveillance,”[10] both still demonstrate the Warren Court’s liberal attitude toward the accused’s rights to privacy.

The Warren Court’s final Fourth Amendment case, Terry v. Ohio (1968), delivered a rather unorthodox opinion that contradicted its past-observed liberal values. At issue in Terry was the police practice of “stop and frisk.” A Cleveland police officer noticed three African American men inspecting a nearby store and assumed they were plotting a robbery. The police officer then frisked them for weapons without a warrant and found weapons on two of the suspects. The men were convicted on weapons charges, which they challenged by claiming the search lacked probable cause. The Warren Court had to decide whether it was reasonable to seize and search a person for illegal possession of items without probable cause. The Court answered that “stop and frisk” is not “always unreasonable” and legalized the practice “regardless of whether (an officer) has probable cause to arrest that individual for crime.”[11] For the first time, the Court “split the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure provisions from its probable cause provisions” (Powe 406). Unlike any other Warren Court decision, Terry was as much a success for the protection of law enforcement as Miranda v. Arizona (1966) was for the accused.

The Warren Court’s radical decisions polarized the United States, enraging law enforcement and conservatives, and ultimately spurring a wave of anti-criminal justice reform sentiment. While predominantly liberal, the Warren Court occasionally ruled in a conservative manner, as seen in Hayden and Terry, which also infuriated liberals across the nation. During the Warren Court, the Fourth Amendment became the primary legal measure to protect the accused and their privacy until Terry constitutionally legalized “stop and frisk” – a practice typically supported by political conservatives. Thus, while the accused have benefited from the constitutional protections broadened by many Warren Court cases, police officers are still empowered to search individuals with “reasonable” suspicion, which effectively gives the police a legal path to violate the Fourth Amendment rights of the accused.


[1] Leonard Levy, Origins of the Fourth Amendment, University of Texas Libraries (2013),

[2] Rochin v. California. 342 U.S. 165, 72 S.Ct. 205, 96 L.Ed. 183 (1952),

[3] Mapp v. Ohio. 367 U.S. 643, 81 S.Ct. 1684, 6 L.Ed.2d 1081 (1961),

[4] Warden v. Hayden. 387 U.S. 294, 87 S.Ct. 1642, 18 L.Ed.2d 782 (1967),

[5] Lucas A. Powe, Jr., The Warren Court and American Politics 405 (2000).

[6] Camara v. Municipal Court. 387 U.S. 523, 87 S.Ct. 1727, 18 L.Ed.2d 930 (1967),

[7] See v. Seattle. 387 U.S. 541, 87 S.Ct. 1741, 18 L.Ed.2d 930 (1967),

[8] Berger v. New York. 388 U.S. 41, 87 S.Ct. 1873, 18 L.Ed.2d 1040 (1967),

[9] Katz v. United States. 389 U.S. 347, 88 S.Ct. 507, 19 L.Ed.2d 576 (1967),

[10] Supra note 5.

[11] Terry v. Ohio. 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968),

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