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

4th Amendment – Search and Seizure

Debates in Congress

The First Congress adopted what would become the 4th Amendment with very little debate. But there is some question as to whether the First Congress really meant for the amendment to do away with general warrants altogether. At almost the same time as it debated the Bill of Rights, the First Congress also adopted the Collection Act of 1789. The Collection Act granted officers who were collecting duties “full power and authority, to enter any ship or vessel, in which they shall have reason to suspect any goods, wares or merchandise subject to duty shall be concealed, and therein to search for, seize, and secure any such goods, wares or merchandise.” In other words, it provided for a general warrant, essentially the same thing as the writs of assistance to which the colonists had so strenuously objected when British collection agents used them to search ships in Boston. Congress probably included this troublesome provision in the Collection Act because the primary means of collecting revenue in the early republic was through duties, and the First Congress was not about to take the subject of tax evasion lightly.

The Collection Act did make a distinction, however, between searching a ship and searching “any particular dwelling-house, store, building, or other place” suspected of concealing contraband. In the latter cases, searches and seizures were expected to proceed only with specific warrants obtained according to procedures similar to those found in the 4th Amendment: “upon application on oath or affirmation to any justice of the peace.” This distinction between real estate and vessels was later applied to the prohibition-era case, Carroll v. United States. Citing the 1789 Collection Act, the decision drew a distinction between searches conducted in homes and those conducted in cars or trucks.