History and Scope of the Amendment
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.
History.—Few provisions of the Bill of Rights grew so directly out of the experience of the colonials as the Fourth Amendment, embodying as it did the protection against the use of the “writs of assistance.” But though the insistence on freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures as a fundamental right gained expression in the colonies late and as a result of experience,1 there was also a rich English experience to draw on. “Every man’s house is his castle” was a maxim much celebrated in England, as Saman’s Case demonstrated in 1603.2 A civil case of execution of process, Saman’s Case nonetheless recognized the right of the homeowner to defend his house against unlawful entry even by the King’s agents, but at the same time recognized the authority of the appropriate officers to break and enter upon notice in order to arrest or to execute the King’s process. Most famous of the English cases was Entick v. Carrington,3 one of a series of civil actions against state officers who, pursuant to general warrants, had raided many homes and other places in search of materials connected with John Wilkes’ polemical pamphlets attacking not only governmental policies but the King himself.4
Entick, an associate of Wilkes, sued because agents had forcibly broken into his house, broken into locked desks and boxes, and seized many printed charts, pamphlets, and the like. In an opinion sweeping in terms, the court declared the warrant and the behavior it authorized subversive “of all the comforts of society,” and the issuance of a warrant for the seizure of all of a person’s papers rather than only those alleged to be criminal in nature “contrary to the genius of the law of England.”5 Besides its general character, the court said, the warrant was bad because it was not issued on a showing of probable cause and no record was required to be made of what had been seized. Entick v. Carrington, the Supreme Court has said, is a “great judgment,” “one of the landmarks of English liberty,” “one of the permanent monuments of the British Constitution,” and a guide to an understanding of what the Framers meant in writing the Fourth Amendment.6
In the colonies, smuggling rather than seditious libel afforded the leading examples of the necessity for protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. In order to enforce the revenue laws, English authorities made use of writs of assistance, which were general warrants authorizing the bearer to enter any house or other place to search for and seize “prohibited and uncustomed” goods, and commanding all subjects to assist in these endeavors. Once issued, the writs remained in force throughout the lifetime of the sovereign and six months thereafter. When, upon the death of George II in 1760, the authorities were required to obtain the issuance of new writs, opposition was led by James Otis, who attacked such writs on libertarian grounds and who asserted the invalidity of the authorizing statutes because they conﬂicted with English constitutionalism.7 Otis lost and the writs were issued and used, but his arguments were much cited in the colonies not only on the immediate subject but also with regard to judicial review.
1 Apparently the first statement of freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures appeared in The Rights of the Colonists and a List of Infringements and Violations of Rights, 1772, in the drafting of which Samuel Adams took the lead. 1 B. Schwartz, The Bill Of Rights: A Documentary History 199, 205–06 (1971).
2 5 Coke’s Repts. 91a, 77 Eng. Rep. 194 (K.B. 1604). One of the most forceful expressions of the maxim was that of William Pitt in Parliament in 1763: “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the crown. It may be frail—its roof may shake—the wind may blow through it—the storm may enter, the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter—all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.”
3 19 Howell’s State Trials 1029, 95 Eng. 807 (1705).
4 See also Wilkes v. Wood, 98 Eng. 489 (C.P. 1763); Huckle v. Money, 95 Eng. Rep. 768 (K.B. 1763), aff’d 19 Howell’s State Trials 1002, 1028; 97 Eng. Rep. 1075 (K.B. 1765).
5 95 Eng. 817, 818.
6 Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 626 (1886).
7 The arguments of Otis and others as well as much background material are contained in Quincy’s Massachusetts Reports, 1761–1772, App. I, pp. 395–540, and in 2 Legal Papers Of John Adams 106–47 (Wroth & Zobel eds., 1965). See also Dickerson, Writs of Assistance as a Cause of the American Revolution, in The Era Of The American Revolution: Studies Inscribed To Evarts Boutell Greene 40 (R. Morris, ed., 1939).