The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is central to our modern conception of property rights. Outside of contract law, few areas other than our right to privacy substantially address such civil libertarian concerns. The Fourth Amendment like so many other Constitution “rights” are not absolute and are subject to various exceptions and stipulations. Much how our right to free speech has limitations, the same can be said about our right to privacy. Even instances of warrantless searches of property and persons. Conceptually a warrantless search and seizure of property are condoned under a specific legal context. Effectively divorcing case law from the normative justifications for the drafting of the Fourth Amendment. The basis for the Fourth Amendment has its origins in the philosophical precepts of English Common Law. Immortalized in the words of the English jurist Sir Edward Coke “…That the house of everyone is to him as his Castle and Fortress..” implying that the home is a man’s ultimate refuge from public life. It is where he stores his personal effects and experiences the most intimate moments of his life. Arguably making securing one’s home the focal point of the property rights protected under the Fourth Amendment.
The Fourth Amendment concisely details the intended scope of security bestowed to American citizens under its protections.
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. (Amendment IV, U.S. Constitution).
In a literal reading of the amendment, it is quite evident that its scope was enough for covering the property rights of citizens of the 18th century. With the advent of new technology, this list of protected areas of the property is wholly incomplete. Since the era of the founding, the various types of property ownership have greatly expanded to include automobiles, various forms of modern intellectual property rights, and even digitally stored information. This is likely why some jurists advocate for the prospect of a “..living Constitution..” that possesses the pliability to adapt to modern times. Despite the potential danger of illiberal innovations that may be utilized to invalidate crucial Constitutional rights. E.g.) An amendment that repeals the Second Amendment due to an increase in gun violence. Due to the stringent requirements to ratify such Amendments, the 4th Amendment has evolved primarily from case law. Primarily the rulings in Supreme Court cases, setting the tone for the modern interpretation of our right to privacy.
In certain contexts, our expectation of privacy varies. For instance, we do not have the same expectation of privacy walking down the street as we do in our bedroom. The verbatim text of the Fourth Amendment does explicitly guard Americans against warrantless searches of their home and person but leaves us in a murky situation when it comes to modern forms of ownership. Never mind cloud computing and other variants of modern data storage, but even automobiles are left out of the equation. This concern becomes particularly significant in the event of a traffic stop. However, factors relating to probable cause and the plain view doctrine need to be considered in justifying a warrantless search of a vehicle, there is another variable at play. Simply, we do not have the same expectation of privacy in our car that we do in our home. To many people, this may sound somewhat absurd and normatively there are some grounds for arguing against this point. However, from the stance of positive law, these assumptions hold.
The origin of the modern limits of the Fourth Amendment regarding vehicle searches dates back to Carroll V. United States (1925). In September 1921, Carroll met with an undercover agent to sell illegal whiskey. After Carroll left the location to obtain the whiskey his “potential” client had left. Then in early October Carroll’s vehicle was involved in a chase with a patrolling police car. Carroll was able to escape arrest. Then on December 15th of the same year, Carroll was pursued and stopped by police. During the traffic stop, the officers discovered 68 bottles of illicit whiskey tucked behind the upholstery of the car. The court held that the agents that apprehended Carroll had justifiable probable cause to search his vehicle. Since previous encounters with the suspect indicated a high likelihood that he owned alcoholic beverages.
It is easy to find such conclusions troubling. After all, we do own our cars. Shouldn’t searches of automobiles require a warrant barring exigent circumstances or the consent of the owner? Carroll happened to be the defining case that did indeed confirm that a man’s car is not his castle! It is easy to assume that the same rights that apply to a home could easily be extrapolated to a vehicle. Much like a home, a car can act as a vessel for holding personal effects. In some cases, for individuals that are homeless, a car is their house. Carroll singlehandedly defines the criteria under which an automobile differs from a stationary house regarding the expectation of privacy. The court ruled that the authorities having the suspicion that a car contains contraband is in itself justifiable for a warrantless search. Why? Since cars are mobile, they can easily leave the jurisdiction well before a warrant can be issued. This decision on the part of the court may seem overarching, however, it was not without limits. The court ruled that warrantless searches of parked automobiles would be considered unreasonable. That the search must be “…contemporaneous with the stop…” making it improper to move the vehicle offsite to search at the police officer’s “convenience ”. Subsequent cases even decades after the Carroll decision would further erode the notion that there is an expectation of privacy in one’s car. Noting that the very nature of a car being a conveyance strips away much of privacy privileged to our homes. Later cases even detailing that “…It travels public thoroughfares where both its occupants and its contents are in plain view…”.