Development of the Exclusionary Rule

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.


Development of the Exclusionary Rule.—Exclusion of evidence as a remedy for Fourth Amendment violations found its beginning in Boyd v. United States,441 which, as noted above, involved not a search and seizure but a compulsory production of business papers, which the Court likened to a search and seizure. Further, the Court analogized the Fifth Amendment’s self-incrimination provision to the Fourth Amendment’s protections to derive a rule that required exclusion of the compelled evidence because the defendant had been compelled to incriminate himself by producing it.442 Boyd was closely limited to its facts and an exclusionary rule based on Fourth Amendment violations was rejected by the Court a few years later, with the Justices adhering to the common-law rule that evidence was admissible however acquired.443

Nevertheless, ten years later the common-law view was itself rejected and an exclusionary rule propounded in Weeks v. United States.444 Weeks had been convicted on the basis of evidence seized from his home in the course of two warrantless searches; some of the evidence consisted of private papers such as those sought to be compelled in Boyd. Unanimously, the Court held that the evidence should have been excluded by the trial court. The Fourth Amendment, Justice Day said, placed on the courts as well as on law enforcement officers restraints on the exercise of power compatible with its guarantees. “The tendency of those who execute the criminal laws of the country to obtain convictions by means of unlawful searches and enforced confessions . . . should find no sanction in the judgments of the courts which are charged at all times with the support of the Constitution and to which people of all conditions have a right to appeal for the maintenance of such fundamental rights.”445 The basis of the ruling is ambiguous, but seems to have been an assumption that admission of illegally seized evidence would itself violate the Fourth Amendment. “If letters and private documents can thus be seized and held and used in evidence against a citizen accused of an offense, the protection of the Fourth Amendment declaring his right to be secured against such searches and seizures is of no value, and, so far as those thus placed are concerned, might as well be stricken from the Constitution. The efforts of the courts and their officials to bring the guilty to punishment, praiseworthy as they are, are not to be aided by the sacrifice of those great principles established by years of endeavor and suffering which have resulted in their embodiment in the fundamental law of the land.”446

Because the Fourth Amendment does not restrict the actions of state officers,447 there was originally no question about the application of an exclusionary rule in state courts448 as a mandate of federal constitutional policy.449 But, in Wolf v. Colorado,450 a unanimous Court held that freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures was such a fundamental right as to be protected against state violations by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.451 However, the Court held that the right thus guaranteed did not require that the exclusionary rule be applied in the state courts, because there were other means to observe and enforce the right. “Granting that in practice the exclusion of evidence may be an effective way of deterring unreasonable searches, it is not for this Court to condemn as falling below the minimal standards assured by the Due Process Clause a State’s reliance upon other methods which, if consistently enforced, would be equally effective.”452

It developed, however, that the Court had not vested in the states total discretion with regard to the admissibility of evidence, as the Court proceeded to evaluate under the due process clause the methods by which the evidence had been obtained. Thus, in Rochin v. California,453 evidence of narcotics possession had been obtained by forcible administration of an emetic to defendant at a hospital after officers had been unsuccessful in preventing him from swallowing certain capsules. The evidence, said Justice Frankfurter for the Court, should have been excluded because the police methods were too objectionable. “This is conduct that shocks the conscience. Illegally breaking into the privacy of the petitioner, the struggle to open his mouth and remove what was there, the forcible extraction of his stomach’s contents . . . is bound to offend even hardened sensibilities. They are methods too close to the rack and screw.”454 The Rochin standard was limited in Irvine v. California,455 in which defendant was convicted of bookmaking activities on the basis of evidence secured by police who repeatedly broke into his house and concealed electronic gear to broadcast every conversation in the house. Justice Jackson’s plurality opinion asserted that Rochin had been occasioned by the element of brutality, and that while the police conduct in Irvine was blatantly illegal the admissibility of the evidence was governed by Wolf, which should be consistently applied for purposes of guidance to state courts. The Justice also entertained considerable doubts about the efficacy of the exclusionary rule.456 Rochin emerged as the standard, however, in a later case in which the Court sustained the admissibility of the results of a blood test administered while defendant was unconscious in a hospital following a traffic accident, the Court observing the routine nature of the test and the minimal intrusion into bodily privacy.457

Then, in Mapp v. Ohio,458 the Court held that the exclusionary rule applied to the states. It was “logically and constitutionally necessary,” wrote Justice Clark for the majority, “that the exclusion doctrine—an essential part of the right to privacy—be also insisted upon as an essential ingredient of the right” to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. “To hold otherwise is to grant the right but in reality to withhold its privilege and enjoyment.”459 The Court further held that, because illegally seized evidence was to be excluded from both federal and state courts, the standards by which the question of legality was to be determined should be the same, regardless of whether the court in which the evidence was offered was state or federal.460

441 116 U.S. 616 (1886).

442 “We have already noticed the intimate relation between the two Amendments. They throw great light on each other. For the ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’ condemned in the Fourth Amendment are almost always made for the purpose of compelling a man to give evidence against himself, which in criminal cases is condemned in the Fifth Amendment; and compelling a man in a criminal case to be a witness against himself, which is condemned in the Fifth Amendment, throws light on the question as to what is an ‘unreasonable search and seizure’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. And we have been unable to perceive that the seizure of a man’s private books and papers to be used in evidence against him is substantially different from compelling him to be a witness against himself. We think it is within the clear intent and meaning of those terms.” 116 U.S. at 633. It was this use of the Fifth Amendment’s clearly required exclusionary rule, rather than one implied from the Fourth, on which Justice Black relied, and, absent a Fifth Amendment self-incrimination violation, he did not apply such a rule. Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 661 (1961) (concurring opinion); Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 493, 496–500 (1971) (dissenting opinion). The theory of a “convergence” of the two Amendments has now been disavowed by the Court. See discussion, supra, under “Property Subject to Seizure.”

443 Adams v. New York, 192 U.S. 585 (1904). Since the case arose from a state court and concerned a search by state officers, it could have been decided simply by holding that the Fourth Amendment was inapplicable. See National Safe Deposit Co. v. Stead, 232 U.S. 58, 71 (1914).

444 232 U.S. 383 (1914).

445 232 U.S. at 392.

446 232 U.S. at 393.

447 Smith v. Maryland, 59 U.S. (18 How.) 71, 76 (1855); National Safe Deposit Co. v. Stead, 232 U.S. 58, 71 (1914).

448 The history of the exclusionary rule in the state courts was surveyed by Justice Frankfurter in Wolf v. Colorado, 338 U.S. 25, 29, 33–38 (1949). The matter was canvassed again in Elkins v. United States, 364 U.S. 206, 224–32 (1960).

449 During the period in which the Constitution did not impose any restrictions on state searches and seizures, the Court permitted the introduction in evidence in federal courts of items seized by state officers which had they been seized by federal officers would have been inadmissible, Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 398 (1914), so long as no federal officer participated in the search, Byars v. United States, 273 U.S. 28 (1927), or the search was not made on behalf of federal law enforcement purposes. Gambino v. United States, 275 U.S. 310 (1927). This rule became known as the “silver platter doctrine” after the phrase coined by Justice Frankfurter in Lustig v. United States, 338 U.S. 74, 78–79 (1949): “The crux of that doctrine is that a search is a search by a federal official if he had a hand in it; it is not a search by a federal official if evidence secured by state authorities is turned over to the federal authorities on a silver platter.” In Elkins v. United States, 364 U.S. 206 (1960), the doctrine was discarded by a five-to-four majority, which held that, because Wolf v. Colorado, 338 U.S. 25 (1949), had made state searches and seizures subject to federal constitutional restrictions through the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, the “silver platter doctrine” was no longer constitutionally viable. During this same period, since state courts were free to admit any evidence no matter how obtained, evidence illegally seized by federal officers could be used in state courts, Wilson v. Schnettler, 365 U.S. 381 (1961), although the Supreme Court ruled out such a course if the evidence had first been offered in a federal trial and had been suppressed. Rea v. United States, 350 U.S. 214 (1956).

450 338 U.S. 25 (1949).

451 “The security of one’s privacy against arbitrary intrusion by the police— which is at the core of the Fourth Amendment—is basic to a free society. It is therefore implicit in ‘the concept of ordered liberty’ and as such enforceable against the States through the Due Process Clause.” 338 U.S. at 27–28.

452 338 U.S. at 31.

453 342 U.S. 165 (1952). The police had initially entered defendant’s house without a warrant. Justices Black and Douglas concurred in the result on self-incrimination grounds.

454 342 U.S. at 172.

455 347 U.S. 128 (1954).

456 347 U.S. at 134–38. Justice Clark, concurring, announced his intention to vote to apply the exclusionary rule to the states when the votes were available. Id. at 138. Justices Black and Douglas dissented on self-incrimination grounds, id. at 139, and Justice Douglas continued to urge the application of the exclusionary rule to the states. Id. at 149. Justices Frankfurter and Burton dissented on due process grounds, arguing the relevance of Rochin. Id. at 142.

457 Breithaupt v. Abram, 352 U.S. 432 (1957). Chief Justice Warren and Justices Black and Douglas dissented. Though a due process case, the results of the case have been reaffirmed directly in a Fourth Amendment case. Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966).

458 367 U.S. 643 (1961).

459 367 U.S. at 655–56. Justice Black concurred, doubting that the Fourth Amendment itself compelled adoption of an exclusionary rule but relying on the Fifth Amendment for authority. Id. at 661. Justice Stewart would not have reached the issue but would have reversed on other grounds, id. at 672, while Justices Harlan, Frankfurter, and Whittaker dissented, preferring to adhere to Wolf. Id. at 672. Justice Harlan advocated the overruling of Mapp down to the conclusion of his service on the Court. See Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 490 (1971) (concurring opinion).

460 Ker v. California, 374 U.S. 23 (1963).