The First Freedoms
The Privacy Amendments
The 5th Amendment
The 6th Amendment
Civil Trials
The Interpretive Rules

4th Amendment – Search and Seizure

State Constitutions and the Bill of Rights

A Prohibition of General Warrants

In light of their unhappy experience with general warrants and writs of assistance, it is no wonder that Americans began to prohibit them after asserting their independence. The state constitutions of Virginia, Maryland, and Massachusetts all included provisions that named the conditions under which warrants would be granted, and the first two specifically condemned general warrants. When the Confederation Congress debated the Constitution submitted to them by the Philadelphia Convention, Richard Henry Lee objected that, among other defects, the proposed Constitution provided no protections from unreasonable searches and seizures.

During the Virginia Ratifying Convention, George Mason objected that, under the proposed Constitution, federal courts would not offer sufficient redress if federal tax collectors were to abuse their authority: “If any of the federal officers should . . . behave with the most insolent and wanton brutality to a man’s wife or daughter, where is this man to get relief?” John Marshall replied that abuses of this kind would never be allowed under the ordinary laws against trespass. Moreover, if Congress were to pass a law “to authorize [such abusive searches], it would be void.” According to Marshall, then, the 4th Amendment was not even necessary; common law prohibitions against trespass were sufficient. But in spite of Marshall’s assurances, Virginia voted to recommend an amendment that would guarantee the “right to be secure from all unreasonable searches and seizures” and that would discourage the use of general warrants.