What Are Fourth Amendment Rights?
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.
Ensuring the ability of people to go about their daily lives without unnecessary intrusion by the government was an underlying principle behind the Bill of Rights. The language of the Fourth Amendment, ratified by the states in 1791, represents an effort to protect people from being subjected to searches by agents of the newly formed federal government as had occurred in the colonies under British rule. The language of the amendment has been the subject of countless Supreme Court interpretations broadening its scope and application to make it as relevant today in the age of smartphones and digital technology as it was 226 years ago.
Background and historical perspective
The opening words of the Fourth Amendment clearly expresses the concerns its author, James Madison, and others had about government intrusion into people's lives and the need to protect their "persons, houses, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." It was left up to the Supreme Court to interpret the meaning and application of the amendment.
Supreme Court decisions expanding and interpreting the amendment
Probable cause is a reasonable belief on the part of law enforcement supported by facts and evidence of criminal activity. It might sound simple, but how police prove the existence of probable cause is the subject of frequent court challenges. For example, efforts by law enforcement to use what they seized as justification for a search have been consistently rejected by the courts. An unreasonable search cannot be made lawful, according to the courts, by what was found.
The Fourth Amendment, which began as only being applicable to activities of the federal government, has been expanded by the Supreme Court to also protect citizens from searches and seizures by the states. The amendment does not, however, protect people against conduct engaged in by private citizens, so a search of your backpack by a security guard is not a violation of your constitutional rights unless the guard is acting on behalf of the government.
A search, according the Supreme Court, is any intrusion by an agent of the government into areas a person reasonably expects to be private. For example, an object carried in your backpack is protected from a search because of your expectation of privacy, but you lose that expectation if you carry the object in a clear plastic bag and make it visible to others.
Garbage might not immediately come to mind as a Fourth Amendment issue, but the Supreme Court was asked to address it when police searched a person's garbage and found evidence of criminal activity. The individual claimed the trash left at the curb was protected from search by police, but the Court disagreed. According to the court, placing your trash at curbside for pick up relinquishes your privacy rights.
Continued relevance of the Fourth Amendment
Cellphones, GPS devices, social media accounts and other aspects life in the 21st Century would probably shock James Madison and his contemporaries, but they have been the subject of Fourth Amendment cases heard by the Supreme Court and decided based upon language written more than two centuries ago. The intrusions by government might come in forms far different than might have existed in 1791, but the underlying rights the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect remain the same.