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 …”
-Amendment IV, U.S. Constitution
As obituaries go, this one wasn’t front-page news. She was 91 years old, and had never been a subject of media scrutiny or interest but for one incident in her life. But that one incident, and her resolve in dealing with it, had a profound impact on the way one of the country’s most basic freedoms has been interpreted.
Her name was Dollree (Dolly) Mapp. She died on the last day of October this year. The incident that made her life noteworthy occurred 57 years earlier, and it led to one of the country’s more significant Supreme Court decisions, one that extended the protections of a key provision of the Bill of Rights to all Americans.
Her story transpired as follows: On May 23, 1957, three police officers arrived at her home in Cleveland and demanded to enter. They wanted to question a man they believed was in the home about a recent bombing. Ms. Mapp refused to allow them entry unless they produced a search warrant. The officers retreated and returned a few hours later, at which point they forced themselves into the house. Ms. Mapp again asked to see a warrant. One of the officers held up a piece of paper he claimed was a warrant. Ms. Mapp snatched it and stuffed it into her blouse. The officer reached inside her clothing and took it back.
The officers then handcuffed Ms. Mapp, calling her “belligerent,” and searched her bedroom and much of the rest of the house. They never found the man they were looking for, but they did retrieve what they said were sexually explicit materials that Ms. Mapp told them had belonged to a previous border in the house. She was arrested on obscenity charges and was convicted and sentenced to prison.
Four years later, Ms. Mapp having exhausted all of her state court appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court took up her case. At first the Court thought it would review the obscenity statute she had been convicted under (as a possible First Amendment violation). But in the decision the Court ultimately made, it addressed a much more significant issue, to wit: whether Ms. Mapp had been subjected to an illegal search in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and, if so, whether she was entitled to have the evidence seized in that illegal search excluded from her trial by virtue of the Exclusionary Rule (the Rule).
The Rule had been recognized by the Court for many years in all federal prosecutions as a means of enforcing the Fourth Amendment against illegal federal searches (searches conducted by federal authorities like the F.B.I.), but it had rejected application of the Rule to state court prosecutions by refusing to consider that the Rule itself was implicitly part of the Fourth Amendment prohibition.
But in the landmark decision of Mapp v. Ohio, the Court reversed its prior rulings by a 6-3 vote and declared definitively that the Exclusionary Rule was imposed on the states by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, which incorporated the provisions of the Fourth Amendment and made them applicable to the states. The Court declared in its majority opinion that “the state, by admitting evidence seized unlawfully, serves to encourage disobedience to the federal Constitution, which it is bound to uphold.”
The effect of the decision was to turn state court prosecutions in a vast number of cases on their head. In any instance where a warrantless search or a search secured through an improperly granted warrant had been conducted, a defense could be asserted in pre-trial motions that, if successful, would deny the prosecution the ability to prove its case (because the necessary evidence would be excluded from introduction at trial).
Simply stated, defendants like Dolly Mapp were now released from custody and freed from prosecution by successfully asserting that their Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. The decision also had the effect of opening police procedures up to far more intense scrutiny as defense lawyers (I was one of them) would comb through police reports to look for flaws in the investigative process that led to the grant of a search warrant. If a warrant had been obtained from a magistrate by virtue of undocumented suspicions or because of unnamed (and presumably unreliable) informants, the warrant could be contested in a pre-trial suppression motion.
The media began to use the term “technicality” to describe such releases from prosecution of defendants who otherwise appeared guilty (or at least potentially guilty). Richard Nixon ran two successful presidential campaigns on a “law-and-order” theme by claiming that the Rule had allowed too many guilty individuals to escape prosecution. Years later, the Court began a process of limiting the impact of the Rule, beginning with a decision in 1984 that allowed for an exception to the Rule when the police had acted “in good faith” in securing and executing an improperly granted warrant. Other decisions have also restricted the use of the Rule by defendants in criminal cases, but the heart of it is still intact, and it has undoubtedly had a prophylactic effect in securing for all Americans the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures that the Constitution guarantees.
For that fact, the country has Dolly Mapp to thank. To be sure, she isn’t about to have monuments built in her honor. She isn’t being compared, for example, to Rosa Parks, who also defied the guise of lawful authority when she refused to move to the back of the bus a few years before Ms. Mapp refused entry to those warrantless officers.
But in her own act of defiance, her own claim to her constitutional rights, Dolly Mapp was a hero of equal stature and importance: a woman who made a difference, not by the life she led, but by the stand she took on a single occasion when her only resource was the country’s Constitution.