Project on the 4th Amendment

Protecting Our Right to be Secure in Our Persons and Property

The Institute for Justice’s Project on the Fourth Amendment strives to protect one of America’s foundational property rights: The right to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. As government has grown in size and scope, judges have invented one exception after another, poking holes in the Fourth Amendment until it resembled Swiss cheese.

These exceptions let Big Brother snoop on our daily lives–including by coming onto peoples’ land to snoop on them and demanding records about who people called or what websites they visited–all without ever having to get a judge’s permission. The threat these exceptions pose grows ever more dire because under current search and seizure law, the further technology advances, the more privacy must retreat.

But IJ’s Project on the Fourth Amendment will restore Americans’ rights to security and privacy. It will persuade both courts and the public that the Fourth Amendment is a fundamental aspect of our property rights. It will eliminate loopholes that let the government investigate us and our property without having to get a warrant. And it will convince courts that whether a search or seizure is “unreasonable” turns not on their own personal views, but rather on the protections that Americans fought a revolution to secure.

The Fourth Amendment

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.

What Happened?

How Our Right to be Secure Got Eviscerated

The Fourth Amendment is a broad declaration of our right to be secure in our persons and property but it, like all our rights, is only good so long as courts interpret and apply the right consistent with the Framers’ understanding. Early on, that’s what happened. In the first major Fourth Amendment case that came before the Supreme Court, the Court rejected the government’s claim that it could open letters and packages travelling through the mail, holding that the “constitutional guaranty of the right of the people to be secure in their papers against unreasonable searches and seizures extends to their papers, thus closed against inspection, wherever they may be.” Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727, 733, 24 L. Ed. 877 (1877). In another early case, the Supreme Court rejected the government’s attempt to subpoena a person’s private papers for use in a forfeiture proceeding and declared that  

 [C]onstitutional provisions for the security of person and property should be liberally construed. A close and literal construction deprives them of half their efficacy, and leads to gradual depreciation of the right, as if it consisted more in sound than in substance. It is the duty of courts to be watchful for the constitutional rights of the citizen, and against any stealthy encroachments thereon. Their motto should be obsta principiis [“resist beginnings”]. 

Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 6 S. Ct. 524, 29 L. Ed. 746 (1886).

How We’re Fighting Back

Our right to be secure deserves better than its current treatment.  So IJ’s Project on the Fourth Amendment will persuade courts to get rid of the confusing and contradictory Fourth Amendment rules that currently exist. In their place, the Project is offering courts a fresh approach to search-and-seizure law that is simple to understand, consistent with original understanding, and broadly protective of our right to be secure.  

IJ’s Project on the Fourth Amendment will take aim at the doctrines that allowed the horror stories that both IJ clients and others have experienced.  And in so doing, IJ will convince courts that all purposeful investigative acts by government officials are “searches” and that whether those searches are “reasonable” turns not on judges’ personal beliefs, but on whether they are consistent with the protections the Framers intended.  These reforms are critical to ensure that Americans can feel secure in our persons and property for generations to come.  

Open Fields Doctrine

Private land isn’t really private if government officials can come onto it whenever they want. Learn more about how the open fields doctrine opened up our private property to public inspection, how modern technology now allows that inspection to continue 24/7, and how IJ’s Project on the Fourth Amendment is fighting back.

Third-Party Doctrine

Our information is our property. But the second we share our information with others, we lose all Fourth Amendment protections, even if the other party contractually agreed to keep it secure. Learn how the Supreme Court wrongly applied a rule meant for mob stool pigeons to us all, and how IJ’s Project on the Fourth Amendment is pushing back. 

Business Inspections

Just because you open a business doesn’t mean you give up your right to be secure. Although the Supreme Court says the government typically needs a warrant to inspect the non-public parts of your shop, lower courts have gutted that guarantee by blowing open what was supposed to be a narrow exception for ultra-hazardous businesses. 

Rental Inspections

Rental Inspections

Our home is our castle, and that doesn’t change depending on whether we own it outright or rent it from someone else. But numerous cities across the United States are demanding to enter renters’ homes, either by strong-arming landlords or by using administrative warrants that don’t require the government to have any evidence of a problem. 

Project on the 4th Amendment Cases

Lawsuit challenges warrantless searches of land

Louisiana game wardens have entered Tom Manuel's land uninvited and without a warrant multiple times. He's asking courts to follow the Louisiana Constitution and protect private property from unreasonable searches.

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