Vanderbilt Law Review


Justin H. Smith

First Page



Numerous rulings by the Supreme Court have confirmed the long-held assertion that the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement is a "centerpiece for the law of search and seizure, and that prescreening by neutral and detached magistrates is [at] the heart of citizens' protection against police overreaching." On September 21, 1994, however, these assertions proved inaccurate and painfully hollow for Betty Ingram, a fifty-three-year-old diabetic who awoke to the sound of armed police officers charging through her front door. The officers, who were searching for a suspect involved in a buy- and-bust operation, had neither obtained a search warrant nor knocked and announced their presence. Mistaking Ingram's son for the suspect, they proceeded to handcuff and place him on the floor while pointing their guns at his head. When Ingram's daughter asked what was happening, the officers told her to "shut up," lacing their language with expletives. Ingram was hit in the face and knocked down, then handcuffed and shaken so violently that her head struck the couch repeatedly.

Given the Fourth Amendment's general prohibition on "unreasonable searches and seizures," and its associated requirement that "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause," one might wonder how Ingram found herself in such appalling circumstances. Under what authority did the police forcefully, and perhaps wrongfully, intrude into the home of an innocent citizen? The answer lies in a subtle jurisprudential shift away from the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement that transpired during the latter part of the twentieth century. Over several decades, the Supreme Court has routinely narrowed the range of cases to which the warrant requirement applies so that, in practice, warrants have become an exception rather than the rule. One scholar catalogued almost twenty such exemptions as of 1985, including searches incident to arrest, automobile searches, border searches, administrative searches of regulated businesses, exigent circumstances, searches incident to nonarrest when there is probable cause to arrest, boat boarding for document checks, welfare searches, inventory searches, airport searches, school searches, searches of government employees' offices, and mobile home searches.