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.
The Fourth Amendment declares a right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, but how this right translates into concrete terms is not specified. Several possible methods of enforcement have been suggested, but only one – the exclusionary rule – has been applied with any frequency by the Supreme Court, and Court in recent years has limited its application.
Alternatives to the Exclusionary Rule
Theoretically, there are several alternatives to the exclusionary rule. An illegal search and seizure may be criminally actionable and officers undertaking one thus subject to prosecution, but the examples when officers are criminally prosecuted for overzealous law enforcement are extremely rare.1 A police officer who makes an illegal search and seizure is subject to internal departmental discipline, which may be backed up by the oversight of police review boards in the few jurisdictions that have adopted them, but, again, the examples of disciplinary actions are exceedingly rare.2
Civil remedies are also available. Persons who have been illegally arrested or who have had their privacy invaded will usually have a tort action available under state statutory or common law, or against the Federal Government under the Federal Tort Claims Act.3 Moreover, police officers acting under color of state law who violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights are subject to a suit in federal court for damages and other remedies4 under a civil rights statute.5 Although federal officers and others acting under color of federal law are not subject to this statute, the Supreme Court has held that a right to damages for a violation of Fourth Amendment rights arises by implication and that this right is enforceable in federal courts.6
Although a damages remedy might be made more effectual,7 legal and practical problems stand in the way.8 Law enforcement officers have available to them the usual common-law defenses, the most important of which is the claim of good faith.9 Such
good faith claims, however, are not based on the subjective intent of the officer. Instead, officers are entitled to qualified immunity
where clearly established law does not show that the search violated the Fourth Amendment,10 or where they had an objectively reasonable belief that a warrantless search later determined to violate the Fourth Amendment was supported by probable cause or exigent circumstances.11 On the practical side, persons subjected to illegal arrests and searches and seizures are often disreputable persons toward whom juries are unsympathetic, or they are indigent and unable to sue. The result, therefore, is that the Court has emphasized exclusion of unconstitutionally seized evidence in subsequent criminal trials as the only effective enforcement method.