Mapp v. Ohio

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Contents

Summary

This vital Fourth Amendment case established the exclusionary rule, which (broadly stated) indicates that illegally obtained evidence cannot be used in a court of law.

Facts of the Case

As with all great search and seizure cases, the facts of Mapp v. Ohio reflect the realities of Constitutional law "where the rubber meets the road", in the real world where things are messy and chaotic, everyone operates without much information, and guesses are constantly made - usually wrongly.

Miss Dollree Mapp was on May 23, 1957, an inhabitant of Cleveland, Ohio, a city well known among lawyers for its chief export - search and seizure litigation. She lived with her daughter on the top floor of a two-family home. In that home, the Cleveland police came to believe, was also a suspect wanted in connection with a recent bombing. The police came to the door, knocked, and requested admittance. Miss Mapp, no dummy, called her lawyer and, after speaking with him, told the officers that she declined to permit them to enter. The officers called the precinct station and were told to surveil the residence, which they did for about three hours.

Once four more officers arrived, though, they decided not to wait any longer. They knocked on the door, and when Miss Mapp did not answer immediately, tried to kick in the door, then broke the glass, reached in and let themselves in. Mapp was descending the stairs when she saw this.

Miss Mapp demanded to see a search warrant. An officer produced a piece of paper, which he held up and declared to be a search warrant. Miss Mapp grabbed the piece of paper and tried to read it. The officer, alarmed, tried to get it back from her. Miss Mapp shoved the paper "in her bosom" (as the Court delicately puts it) The officers struggled with her, recovered the paper, and handcuffed her. (The paper then disappeared, never to be seen by anyone ever again.) Mapp was dragged upstairs to her residence in handcuffs, where the officers searched the place and found nothing. An officer also went down to her basement where a trunk was searched and pornography was found. No evidence connecting Mapp to the bombing suspect was ever located.

Miss Mapp was convicted in the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court for possession of lewd and lascivious materials based on the materials found during the search. (Justice Douglas said that these were "four little pamphlets and a pencil doodle." in his concurring opinion.)

The Law Before Mapp v. Ohio

Before Mapp v. Ohio, it was largely up to state courts to decide whether illegally obtained evidence could be admitted in those courts. The reasoning often was that if evidence was obtained in contravention of the United States Constitution, that was a terrible thing, but the remedy was not necessarily exclusion of the evidence. Someone whose rights had been violated could pursue a civil action against the state, for example, or the police officer might face a fine.

After all, if a murder weapon is found in someone's dresser drawer, the existence of a legal document permitting the police to search that dresser and find it doesn't affect whether or not the weapon was there, and certainly doesn't affect its relevancy or weight as a piece of evidence in a murder trial. In other words, the mistake or even the malice of a police officer does not, this reasoning goes, affect the evidentiary value of what it is they find, and therefore it would be wrong to keep evidence from the judge or jury based solely on what a police officer does to obtain it. As Justice Benjamin Cardozo often wrote, one shouldn't set the criminal free because the constable has blundered.

On the other hand, as early as 1914, the Supreme Court had decided that in federal court, the Constitution prohibited the use of illegally obtained material. In Weeks v. United States, the Court stated that "If letters and private documents can thus be seized and held and used in evidence against a citizen accused of an offense, the protection of the Fourth Amendment declaring his right to be secure against such searches and seizures is of no value, and, so far as those thus placed are concerned, might as well be stricken from the Constitution." Essentially it held that the police, as state actors, are bound to obey the Constitution which gives them their powers. The police cannot be allowed to violate the Fourth Amendment because the state does not have the power to do so. Thus, any action an officer takes which violates the Constitution is without legal force, and therefore those actions should not be permitted to deliver evidence to a court.

In 1949, however, the case of Wolf v. Colorado was heard by the Supreme Court, and the Court declined to apply this exclusionary rule to the states. In that case, the Court noted that the states had several different rules regarding the admissibility of illegally obtained evidence, and indicated that it could not "brush aside the experience of States which deem the incidence of such conduct by the police too slight" to call for the exclusionary rule.

The Holding in Mapp

Mapp v. Ohio was a 6-3 decision. The opinion in Mapp v. Ohio has an introduction and five parts. It was written by Justice Tom Clark. Justices Hugo Black and William Douglas concurred in separate opinions. Justices John Harlan II, Felix Frankfurter and Charles Whittaker dissented and Justice Potter Stewart wrote a short separate memorandum concurring only in the judgment.

The introduction gives the facts of the case and the basic issue.

Part I addresses the history of the exclusionary rule as it developed in federal courts.

Part II addressed Wolf v. Colorado and indicated that the factual circumstances present when Wolf was decided had changed. Notably, when Wolf was decided in 1949, about two-thirds of the states opposed the exclusionary rule, and when Mapp was decided in 1961, about half of the states supported it, the judiciary and legislature indicating that there seemed no other way to stop police misconduct. The Court called other remedies for constitutional violations, including civil suits against the state, "worthless and futile". Times had changed.

Part III indicated that the Court was still committed to the exclusionary rule at the federal level and stated the basic holding: "We hold that all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution is, by that same authority, inadmissible in a state court."

Part IV explained again the basis for the exclusionary rule - deterrence of police misconduct. And, tellingly, the Court re-stated strongly that "(t)he right to privacy, no less important than any other right carefully and particularly reserved to the people, would stand in marked contrast to all other rights declared as 'basic to a free society.'"

Part V served as an explanation for how the any negative impact of Mapp on law enforcement could be minimized, and issued the judgment of the Court. "There is no war between the Constitution and common sense."

The Concurrences

Justice Black's concurrence emphasized the link between the Fourth and Fifth Amendments in the operation of the exclusionary rule. Although this link was mentioned in the Court's opinion, in Black's view, it was this connection that was vital to the case. He indicated that the Fifth Amendment defended Americans from being compelled to incriminate themselves, and that the Fourth Amendment is part of the same protection. He cited Boyd v. United States, in which the Court stated it was "unable to perceive that the seizure of a man's private books and papers to be used in evidence against him is substantially different from compelling him to be a witness against himself." Just as his words, when illegally compelled, cannot be used against him, Black argues, so too his possessions, when illegally obtained, cannot be used against him. The Fourth Amendment is not, in Black's view, only about property which, if someone steals, can be paid for.

Justice Douglas' concurrence emphasized the importance of deterrence on a nationwide level, indicating that since Wolf, there had been a great deal of unseemly court "shopping", in which evidence inadmissible in federal court would be "shopped" to any state court that still didn't have the exclusionary rule. He criticized Wolf as a decision not based on principle, but instead on expediency. Although Wolf applied the Fourth Amendment to the states, he said, by not also applying the exclusionary rule, it did so in a toothless manner.

Justice Stewart's memorandum said he agreed with Harlan's dissent insofar as he felt Ohio's pornography law was unconstitutional but he would reverse the decision of the lower court on that basis without ever reaching the question of the legality of the search. So he was concurring only in the judgment of the court.

The Dissents

The dissent authored by Justice Harlan indicates that he believes the issue decided was not squarely presented in the case, and chastises the rest of the court for lack of "judicial restraint" (a code phrase for judges whose favored opinions are being overturned). He correctly indicates that most of the argument and briefing had not been about the legality of the police search at all - but had instead been about the constitutionality of Ohio's pornography law! Harlan also argues that the decision in the Weeks case, establishing the federal exclusionary rule, did not come from any Constitutional requirement, but instead from the Supreme Court's supervisory power over the federal courts. He also criticizes the argument that Wolf should be overruled because the facts "on the ground" have changed, indicating that the question is not the desirability of the exclusionary rule, but whether states should be free to follow it or not.

After Mapp v. Ohio

The exclusionary rule had its required effect - requests for search warrants skyrocketed after Mapp v. Ohio, nationwide. It remains a robust piece of law used throughout the nation. However, the Supreme Court has constantly chipped away at the exclusionary rule, and many justices since then have expressed the opinion that it should be eliminated entirely.

The most significant limitation to Mapp v. Ohio was created in United States v. Leon in 1984, when the Court declared there would be a "good faith exception" to the exclusionary rule. This exception declares that if a police officer believes in good faith that they have a valid warrant - and there are objective facts that a reasonable person would also believe that - the exclusionary rule does not apply if the warrant later turns out to be invalid. This holding strips away all other reasons from the exclusionary rule other than police deterrence. It particularly rejects Justice Black's analysis of the link between the Fourth and Fifth amendments.

The exclusionary rule today, although it is applied in courts throughout the land, argued about vigorously by the legal profession and used "on the ground" with police departments is nevertheless in serious jeopardy.

Links

  • The ACLU argued as amicus curiae in the case, urging reversal of Miss Mapp's conviction.
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