What is the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution?

Candace Lehman, Kat Kadian-Baumeyer
  • Author
    Candace Lehman

    Candace Lehman has taught all subject areas in 4th and 5th grade for over 12 years. She has a Bachelors of Science in Elementary Education from Missouri State University. She holds a lifetime teaching certificate in the state of Missouri for Birth-6th Grade.

  • Instructor
    Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

    Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

What is the Fourth Amendment, also known as, "the search and seizure amendment"? Understand the meaning of 4th Amendment, the rights the amendment protects, and view 4th Amendment examples. Updated: 07/15/2021

Table of Contents


What is the Fourth Amendment?

The 4th Amendment requires a warrant before a lawful search and seizure can take place.

Search and Seizure

What is the Fourth Amendment? The Fourth Amendment is among the first ten amendments that make up "The Bill of Rights". Its meaning is to protect against arbitrary arrests, and is the law regarding search warrants, stop-and-frisk, safety inspections, wiretaps, and other forms of surveillance.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, states that it is the right of all the people of the United States, citizens and undocumented immigrants, to be protected against violation of their person, their home, or any possession, against unreasonable search and seizures, and states that a warrant will only be issued when probable cause exists. If probable cause can be proven, persons or things can be seized.

The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution protects a citizen

The United States Constitution

The ultimate goal of the Fourth Amendment is to protect a citizen's right to privacy. The amendment does not protect against all search and seizures, just ones that are unjustified by a court of law.

Fourth Amendment Meaning

The Fourth Amendment is also known as the, search and seizure amendment. A search warrant --an order a judge must sign to give permission for authorities to search--must be issued, on most occasions, before a search or seizure can legally take place. There are some situations where a warrantless search and seizure may occur.

Reasons for Warrantless Search and Seizure

  • Officer is given a voluntary consent
  • Search happens only due to situations during a lawful arrest
  • Probable cause and extremely dire circumstances such as imminent danger
  • Plain view
  • Abandoned property
  • Open field

The following terms and concepts are important to search and seizure laws.

Fourth Amendment Terms and Concepts
expectation of privacy People have the expectation of privacy in their own homes, vehicles, places of work, journals, telephone conversations, letters, and anything that requires a password to access.
probable cause Is determined by courts to mean reasonable suspicion that a crime has taken place, or that evidence of a crime is imminent.
warrants A search warrant is authorization to search a specific area for evidence of a specific crime.
reasonable suspicion This is used in determining if an officer had the authority to perform a warrantless search.
stop & frisk Is a brief non-intrusive police stop and search of a suspect.
plain view An officer can seize an item without a warrant if he observes the object in plain view.
open field Areas such as pastures, wooded areas open water, and vacant lots do not need to comply with the requirements of warrants and probable cause.

An example of when reasonable suspicion and plain view search and seizure can legally take place is the following example:

An officer has a warrant to search a property to look for stolen goods of a convicted armed robber. He had reasonable suspicion that the stolen goods were at this property. He did not find the stolen goods, but did find the weapon used in the robbery in plain sight. He was able to lawfully seize the weapon under the plain view doctrine, even though his warrant did not specifically state any weapons.

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Fourth Amendment Examples

The following are Fourth Amendment examples that describe the role that court decisions have played in shaping the meaning of The Bill of Rights, Fourth Amendment:

Kyllo v. United States

In the case of Kyllo v. United States, a Department of the Interior agent used a heat imaging device to scan the exterior of Danny Kyllo's home. He had reasonable suspicion that Kyllo was using indoor heat lamps to grow marijuana. When his test showed that there were, in fact, areas of his home radiating more heat than others, he took that information, in addition to increased utility bills, to a judge and received a warrant to search Kyllo's home. In the search, the officer found where Kyllo was growing marijuana indoors. Kyllo was indicted on a federal drug charge. Kyllo's lawyer appealed the charge, stating that the heat imaging scan of Kello's home broke his Fourth Amendment rights. The court determined that the use of the heat imaging was unlawful since it was not something anyone in public could obtain. Without the results for the heat scan, the warrant issued was determined unjustifiable.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How is the 4th Amendment used today?

The 4th Amendment is used today to provide United States citizens with a right to privacy. There are some lawful unwarranted searches; however, most searches of personal property require due cause and a warrant.

What violates the 4th Amendment?

Violations to the 4th Amendment are when a victim can prove their right to privacy has been violated. A person who feels like their 4th Amendment has been violated can file a Bivens Action against the law enforcement of the state where the violation took place.

What is the Fourth Amendment in simple terms?

The 4th Amendment in simple terms is the search and seizure amendment. The amendment states basically that a warrant must be obtained before a lawful search and seizure of a person's private property can be obtained.

What is not protected by the 4th Amendment?

A person who is suspected of a Federal crime is not protected by the 4th Amendment. Also, any person who willingly volunteers to consent to a search without a warrant would not be protected by the amendment.

What is the history behind the 4th Amendment?

The 4th Amendment was ratified in 1791. It is said to have been drawn from experiences the Colonial Americans had faced when living in England.

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