NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Court Upholds Search Warrant Requirement

October 19, 1999

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that there is no exception for crime scenes to the Constitution's requirement of obtaining a search warrant. Legal observers noted with interest that the Court -- which is often deeply divided -- was unanimous in its decision.

In fact, the issue was evidently so clear to the Justices that they decided it without hearing arguments or calling for further briefing. That practice was once common, but is now relatively rare, experts say.

  • The case overturned a West Virginia man's conviction for murdering his wife -- a decision which might have been influenced by photographs the police removed from a briefcase they found at the scene and opened without a warrant.
  • The trial court had held that the police "were clearly within the law" in examining "anything and everything found within the crime scene."
  • But the Supreme Court found that murder scenes are not exempt from the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement.
  • The only possible exemptions to that requirement would be in cases where there was an emergency or danger to the police or others that would have precluded getting a warrant after the site was secured -- situations that did not apply to this particular case.

Source: Linda Greenhouse, "Ruling Requires Warrants for Crime Scene Searches," New York Times, October 19, 1999.

 

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