The freedom from unreasonable search and seizure is one among many rights that protects citizens from government overreach. This lesson discusses the definition, background, and application of the amendment that protects this right.

The Fourth Amendment

Can a government official enter your home, search your closet, and take your most prized possessions, even though you’ve done nothing wrong? If you’re pulled over, can a cop open your trunk and search all of your belongings for no reason whatsoever and without your consent? No! Government officials and law enforcement cannot invade our privacy and take whatever they want, unless there is a warrant or strong suspicion we are involved in questionable activities. So, we know that we, as citizens of the United States, have freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

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But where does this right come from? If you guessed the Constitution, you’re right! The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects citizens from governmental abuse of power, or, more specifically, from baseless warrants and unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Bill of Rights ensures our most basic rights as citizens.
Photo of Bill of Rights

What Does the Fourth Amendment Actually Say?

The Fourth Amendment reads: ‘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.’

There are in fact two main rights laid out in the Fourth Amendment. The first part of the amendment protects citizens from searches and seizures that are specifically unreasonable in nature. The second part of the amendment dictates that warrants should state exactly who and what they are for, and warrants will only be issued if there is probable cause (or a good reason). On a basic level, that means that law enforcement and the government cannot search or seize an individual’s private property for no reason whatsoever. Reasonable searches and seizures are legal as long as a specific process is followed (probable cause exists and a warrant is issued, but on rare occasions, extreme situations may justify an immediate search without a warrant, such as when there is a dangerous person at-large and people are in danger).

What Is the Background of the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment was passed as part of the Bill of Rights, a name given to the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. The Bill of Rights enumerates some of the many rights that all citizens of the United States are guaranteed. The Bill of Rights was fully ratified in 1791.

The creators of the Constitution wanted to protect the rights of American citizens.
Painting of Signing of Constitution

The Fourth Amendment rose out of several bad experiences with the British government. Before the American Revolution, the British government had been violating the American colonists’ rights for quite some time. For example, the British would issue writs of assistance, which were broad search warrants that allowed government officials to search basically anyone and anything, even without a good reason. They were used to enforce laws, but the colonists saw them as a major abuse of power.

So, when it came time to form their own government, the men who created the Constitution wanted to prevent the kind of abuse that had come from the writs of assistance. The Fourth Amendment was the authors’ guarantee to the people that the government would be limited in what it can search and seize from private citizens.

How Has the Fourth Amendment Been Applied?

The Fourth Amendment sounds simple enough, but courts have had a hard time interpreting it. The Fourth Amendment (combined with the Fourteenth Amendment) gives Americans a right to some degree of privacy, even though a ‘right to privacy’ is not explicitly stated anywhere in the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment tries to strike a balance between protecting the individual against government overreach while still enabling the government to find and punish criminal activity.

As an example, let’s say you are pulled over for speeding. If there is nothing suspicious in your car, and if you don’t have a warrant out for your arrest, the police officer will give you a speeding ticket and send you on your way. The officer cannot search every nook and cranny of your car unless you consent to it, or unless something explicitly illegal is in plain sight in your car. If you get pulled over for speeding, and you have your neighbor tied up in your back seat, then the officer would be justified in searching your car and arresting you right then and there!

Anything as important as the Fourth Amendment will also stir up debate. For example, can the police stop and frisk an individual simply because he or she looks suspicious, or does that violate the individual’s Fourth Amendment right? What about the National Security Agency (NSA)? The NSA collects millions of Americans’ phone records without consent. Does this violate our rights, or is it necessary and justified in order to keep the nation safe? These are the debates surrounding the Fourth Amendment that affect our everyday lives, and this is why we all need to know what the Fourth Amendment says.

The NSA walks a fine line when it comes to violating the privacy of citizens.
The Seal of the NSA

Lesson Summary

The Bill of Rights went into effect long ago in 1791, but it expresses the timeless principle that individuals have certain, undeniable rights that the government can and should not abridge. Specifically, the Fourth Amendment grants citizens some measure of privacy, and it dictates that the government should follow a protocol before searches and seizures occur. The Fourth Amendment arose out of the colonists’ aversion to the British writs of assistance, which allowed British officials to search the colonists’ property without cause. Even though the Fourth Amendment is part of an old document, it still affects our lives today.