Background Summary & Questions

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Background Summary & Questions

Suspicious that Dollree Mapp might be hiding a person suspected in a bombing, the police went to her home in Cleveland, Ohio. They knocked on her door and demanded entrance. On the advice of her lawyer, Mapp refused to let them in because they did not have a warrant.

After observing her house for several hours and recruiting more officers to the scene, the police forced their way into Mapp's house. When Mapp confronted them and demanded to see their search warrant, one of the officers held up a piece of paper. He claimed it was the search warrant. Mapp grabbed the paper but an officer recovered it and handcuffed Mapp. The police dragged her upstairs and searched her bedroom. Finding nothing there they went to other rooms in the house, including the basement.

As a result of their search of the basement, the police found a trunk containing pornographic books, pictures, and photographs. They arrested Mapp and charged her with violating an Ohio law against the possession of obscene materials. At the trial the police officers did not show Mapp and her attorney the alleged search warrant or explain why they refused to do so. Nevertheless, the court found Mapp guilty and sentenced her to jail.

Mapp and her attorney appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Ohio. Mapp's attorney argued that because the police had no warrant, their search of her basement was illegal. Because the search was illegal, he said, the evidence gained from the search was also illegal. Illegal evidence should not have been allowed in Mapp's trial. In the ruling, the Court disagreed and said that because the evidence was taken peacefully from the trunk, rather than by force from Mapp, it was legal. As a result, Mapp's appeal was denied and her conviction upheld.

Mapp then appealed her case to the Supreme Court of the United States. The case came down to this fundamental question: is evidence obtained through a search that violates the Fourth Amendment admissible in state courts? The Fourth Amendment states "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 . . . and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." The Fourth Amendment, however, does not define when a search or seizure becomes "unreasonable". It also does not explain how evidence obtained from an "unreasonable" search should be treated.

Mapp's case was not the first case to ask this kind of question. In several rulings over the hundred years leading up to Mapp the Supreme Court of the United States had tried to answer questions about what, exactly, the Fourth Amendment means. They had agreed that neither federal nor state officials could conduct "unreasonable searches". Furthermore, in Weeks v. United States, they had determined that federal officials could not use evidence obtained in such searches at trial. However, they had not ruled on whether states could use illegally seized evidence to convict a criminal. Some states, including Ohio, felt that they should be able to make their own determination regarding this issue. Doing so would be consistent with historical tradition—states had always supervised the operation of their criminal justice systems.

In 1960 the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear Mapp's case and determine whether the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, which said the Fourth Amendment applies to the states, prohibited state officials from using evidence obtained in an unreasonable search. The decision in Mapp v. Ohio was handed down in 1961.

Questions to Consider (Answer these on separate paper)

  1. In your opinion, was Mapp right to not let the police enter her house? Explain your reasoning.

  2. The Fourth Amendment states "The right of the people to be secure . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated. . . ." Pretend that you were a justice for the Supreme Court of Ohio. What, if anything, would you find unreasonable in the search of Mapp's house? Explain.

  3. The Supreme Court of the United States has to balance the protection of the rights of individuals against the protection of society. If the police had not searched Mapp's house they would never have found the pornography. With this in mind, do you think the rights of Mapp or society should have been more important? Explain.

Summary of the Decision

In a 5-3 decision,* the Court ruled in favor of Mapp. The majority opinion, written by Justice Clark, applied the exclusionary rule to the states. That rule requires courts to exclude from criminal trials evidence that was obtained in violation of the constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches and arrests. Justice Harlan wrote a dissenting opinion. The majority opinion was based on several earlier decisions that had begun the process of applying federal constitutional protections to state criminal justice systems.

In one of those earlier decisions, the Supreme Court had ruled that the states must be bound by the Fourth Amendment because its guarantees were part of the “due process of law” required of states by the Fourteenth Amendment. That decision essentially required the Fourth Amendment’s provisions, which previously had only applied to the federal government, to apply to the states as well. The justices ruled that since the guarantees of the Fourth Amendment applied to both the federal and state governments, they should be enforced the same way in both federal and state courts. Evidence obtained unlawfully is not admissible in federal court, so it should not be admissible in state courts either.

The justices reasoned that requiring states to obey to the exclusionary rule created “no war between the Constitution and common sense.” They responded to the argument that the exclusionary rule would make it possible for criminals to go free due to police error by pointing out that “the criminal goes free, if he must, but it is the law that sets him free.” The justices stated that the exclusionary rule was necessary to make state authorities abide by the requirements of the Fourth Amendment, for “nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws.” Thus, the Court decided that “the exclusionary rule is an essential part of both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.”

In his dissent, Justice Harlan argued that the majority had confronted the wrong issue in its decision. Because Ms. Mapp was convicted under an Ohio statute criminalizing the possession of obscene material, Justice Harlan believed that the “new and pivotal issue” was whether this statute “is consistent with the rights of free thought and expression assured against state action by the Fourteenth Amendment.” Thus, he concluded that the majority had ignored the principles of judicial restraint and stare decisis, and had “’reached out’” to consider the exclusionary rule issue. According to Justice Harlan, this was a First Amendment case and not an appropriate case for extending the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule to the states. He also concluded that it was wrong to impose the exclusionary rule, designed for the federal criminal process, on the states which, in his view, bore quite different responsibilities in this area of law.

*Justice Stewart wrote a separate opinion that did not address the issue of the exclusionary rule. He voted to reverse Mapp’s conviction solely on First Amendment grounds.

How the Case Moved through the Court System

Mapp v. Ohio (1961)

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