The Constitution of the United States was designed to protect citizens’ civil rights from infringement by the government and law enforcement agencies. The Constitution guarantees that the civil liberties of the people of this country shall be respected and upheld. That fact is often considered to be common knowledge and taken for granted by the vast majority of the population. However it was not always that way. American legislation is constantly growing and developing. New rules and practices are being developed and established. The exclusionary rule is considered to be the most vital to the protection of civil rights. The exclusionary rule is represented by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and it guarantees that illegally obtained evidence shall not be used against the accused. The history of the development of the exclusionary rule is one of the most fascinating examples of American legal evolution.
The Fourth Amendment is believed to be one the cornerstones of the Constitution. It protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, sets the framework for the warrant rule, and introduces the concept of probable cause into police procedures. The significance of the Fourth Amendment is difficult to overestimate. The warrant rule initiated a giant leap forward in the progress of democracy by abolishing the “general warrant” practice and restricting the invasion of privacy that citizens can be subjected to. The police can no longer engage into “fishing expeditions” against suspicious individuals and prosecute them based on the evidence obtained in direct violation of the Constitution. However, the exclusionary rule had a long history before it could adequately protect citizens. The rule met strong opposition from police officials and even some Supreme Court Justices before it became a valid legislation capable of providing adequate protection for citizens.
Despite the overwhelming significance of the rights protected and guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, many questions and concerns existed regarding police and court procedures and practices. The most important of those questions was whether or not illegally obtained evidence could be used in courts. Before 1914, any evidence obtained by the police could be used in both Federal and State courts, regardless of any constitutional violations that might have taken place during the search and seizure of that evidence. Such practice has spawned multiple occurrences of police misconduct. Before that date, many police officers did not follow constitutional requirements. They could freely search individuals and households and seize evidence without appropriate warrants. Needless to say, that such poor performance resulted in illegal arrests and unjust prosecutions of innocent people. One of such cases had become a landmark and initiated the long process of reforms in regard to the Fourth Amendment and police conduct. The Supreme Court articulation of the exclusionary rule has come in Weeks v. United States case in 1914. That case has changed the Fourth Amendment and related laws forever. The defendant, Mr. Freemont Weeks was convicted based on the evidence illegally seized from him during the warrantless search. The appeal was initiated by the defense attorney, thus bringing the case to the attention of the highest Court. The United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction and stated that the evidence obtained illegally cannot be used in court. However, Weeks v. United States made the exclusionary rule applicable to the federal government only.
The exclusionary rule as per Weeks was intended to create a powerful tool of deterring police misconduct and reinforcing the Fourth Amendment. In 1918, a new doctrine was introduced to supplement the exclusionary rule. The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree became a first legal principle, which deemed inadmissible to court any evidence that was developed or obtained based on illegal search and seizure. The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree doctrine was first introduced in Silverstone Lumber Co v. United States, a tax evasion case where federal agents presented photocopies of illegally seized documentation as evidence against the defendant. However, the doctrine was also designed to be applicable only to the federal government. Questions about the introduction of “tainted” evidence in state courts did not arise for another 35 years.
On June 24, 1949 the Supreme Court passed a ruling upholding the conviction of Dr. Julius Wolf who had been convicted of conspiring to commit abortions. The Wolf v. Colorado case was admitted to become a “good case law” thus becoming another important step on a long road to justice. At that time, only 17 states decided to follow the “Weeks principle” and prohibit the acceptance of illegally seized evidence. Justice Felix Frankfurter stated, “… granting that in the practice the exclusion of evidence may be an effective way of deterring unreasonable searches, it is not for this court to condemn… a state’s reliance upon other methods which, if consistently enforced, would be equally effective…” (Wolf v. Colorado, http://oyez.nwu.edu). Despite the visible progress, some states were still free to employ “fishing expeditions” in seizing the evidence.
Two and a half years later, on January 17, 1952 the Supreme Court was faced with a new case involving the Fourth Amendment and the exclusionary rule. This time, police misconduct was so outrageous and shocking that Justices were forced to overturn the conviction. The case of Rochin v. California involved three deputy sheriffs who searched Mr. Rochin’s dwelling without a warrant. The deputies observed the defendant swallow two pills. Mr. Rochin was taken to the hospital where the physician pumped the defendant’s stomach and recovered two pills of morphine. The Supreme Court ruled that evidence inadmissible because of the gross violation of defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. Commenting on the case, Justice Felix Frankfurter stated “This is conduct that shocks the conscience…, methods too close to the rack and screw…”(Galloway, 130). Rochin v. California was ruled to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment and the due process clause within the Fourteenth Amendment. That case was yet another step towards the development of new regulations to shield citizens from police brutality. It also occurred to the courts that new measures to curb and punish police misconduct were desperately needed. During the Rochin case the Supreme Court has introduced a new concept called the “shock of conscience”.
The next case of Irvine v. California was examined on February 8, 1954. The violations of the defendant’s rights were obvious. However, because of political pressures, the Court upheld the prior decision of the state court. The case involved electronic eavesdropping and even though the violations were clear, the Supreme Court did not apply the “shock of conscience” concept. However, Justice Frankfurter dissented and voted for the exclusion of the tainted evidence. Justice William O. Douglas also dissented and called for the application of the exclusionary rule to the states. Another similar case, Breithaupt v. Abram (1957), arose three years later and was upheld for the lack of police “brutality” and “coercion” (Galloway, 130). Again, the “shock of conscience” clause was deemed not applicable. Forty-three years had passed since the landmark Weeks decision, but very little progress could be seen in the enforcement of the exclusionary rule in the majority of the states. Police misconduct continued to create public outrage and protest.
On June 16, 1961 the Court was presented with a new case. The defendant, Ms. Mapp and her daughter opposed the unlawful seizure of lewd books and pictures that were found by the police during an unwarranted search of her residence. During the initial encounter with police officers, who attempted to search her dwelling, Ms. Mapp requested to see the search warrant. After she was shown an obviously fake document she protested the illegal search and was handcuffed. Later, during the trial, the prosecution did not present a valid warrant and did not explain the absence of one. Ms. Mapp was convicted based on the tainted evidence (Nagel, 46). Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned her conviction by the precedent-setting ruling that the police officers were acting in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The majority of the court decided that from then onwards, the exclusionary rule shall apply to all states as prescribed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
The court’s ruling of the Mapp case created unprecedented controversy in the legal community. Many experts voiced their opinions opposing the mandatory application of the exclusionary rule and the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree doctrine to the states. Several problems were identified and argued by the courts. Some professionals argued that the exclusionary rule created a safe route for criminals to go unpunished. They stated that, if the evidence is sufficient enough to convict a suspect, it should not matter if that evidence was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Another opinion stated that if the evidence is tainted, the law enforcement officer has to suffer penalties but the evidence should be admitted and the conviction upheld. Americans for Effective Law Enforcement and the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommended modifying the exclusionary rule so that it should only be applied in cases where “willful, flagrant and substantial violations of search and seizure procedures” are present (Klotter, 25)
The controversy continued as experts attempted to identify the true purpose of the exclusionary rule. According to some experts, the exclusionary rule within the scope of the Fourth Amendment serves to protect citizens’ privacy and ensures the security of their property and possessions from unreasonable and unlawful intrusion by the government. On the other hand, the exclusionary rule is considered to be a legislative tool designed to curb police brutality and misconduct. As Justice Benjamin Cardozo put it, “the criminal is to go free because the constable has blundered” (Epstein, 413)
Similar to the Constitution, the exclusionary rule is not etched in stone, leaving room for new amendments and revisions. In the case of Leon v. United States in 1984, the “good faith” exception has been added to the exclusionary rule. That exception refers to law enforcement officials who conduct a lawful search and seizure on the basis of good faith, and later discover that a mistake was made in the issuance of the warrant; the seized evidence may still me used in trial.
Despite problems, issues, and exceptions associated with the exclusionary rule it has undoubtedly had enormous positive influence on the legal climate in the nation. The Fourth Amendment is critical to maintaining citizens’ privacy and property, and the exclusionary rule has reinforced it. The exclusionary rule has prevented the Fourth Amendment from becoming, “ a form of words, valueless and undeserving of mention in a perpetual chapter of inestimate human liberties” (Ronald, 604). The rule completely reshaped and revolutionized the legal approach to the protection of citizens’ civil liberties.
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Gallaway John. (1973). The Supreme Court and the Rights of the Accused. New York, NY. Facts on File Inc.,
Epstein Lee, Segal A. Jeffrey, Speath J. Harold, Walker G. Thomas. (1996). The Supreme Court Compendium. 2nd edition. Washington DC Congressional Quarterly Inc.
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Mapp v. Ohio case abstract. [online] http://oyes.nwu.edu/cases
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