Personal Injury

Debating the Rule of Law

Searching the Home of Dollree Mapp

Adapted and reprinted from American Bar Association, Law Day Stories (Chicago: ABA, 1995), 71-74.

Sitting at home, enjoying one's privacy. Americans take that right for granted. Yet the founders of our country did not. They wrote that right into law as the Fourth Amendment. The amendment does not forbid the police to search a person's home for evidence of a crime, but as a general rule it does require for a search warrant to be legally obtained beforehand. Unfortunately, there are numerous cases on record in which the authorities have violated this constitutional guarantee. The case of Dollree Mapp was one such incident.

It was May 23, 1957. A woman named Dollree Mapp was alone in her home on the second floor of a two-family house in Cleveland, Ohio. The doorbell rang. What happened next would help establish a rule of law that would affect trials in state courts throughout the country. It would affect what evidence may be presented at a trial and what evidence must be thrown out.

When Dollree Mapp's doorbell rang that afternoon of May 23, she went downstairs and saw three police officers at her door. One of the police officers announced that they were looking for a man in order to question him about a recent bombing. They had reason to believe the man was in that house. The police officers also said they were looking for evidence of an illegal gambling operation. Mapp said she would have to talk to her lawyer before letting the police in. The officers waited outside while she phoned her attorney. He advised Mapp to ask whether the police had a search warrant. A search warrant is a legal document that must describe the place to be searched. It must specify what the police are searching for, and it must be signed by a judge. Mapp's attorney told her that if the police did not show her a search warrant, she did not have to let them in.

Mapp went back to the door and asked to see a search warrant. The police officers admitted that they did not have one. Mapp then locked the downstairs door on them. After one of the police radioed the station to explain what had happened, the three officers waited outside at the front entrance of Mapp's house.

Needless to say, Dollree Mapp became more than a little nervous and upset as she watched the police from her upstairs window. A little while later, her phone rang. On the other end of the line was a police lieutenant who told Mapp to let the police search her house. Instead, Mapp called her lawyer again. He told her he would come over. Meanwhile, two more squad cars with four more police officers appeared outside Mapp's house.

When Mapp finally saw her lawyer's car pull up, she started down the stairs to let him in. By that time, however, several of the police officers had already broken into her hallway. Outside, the other officers were preventing Mapp's lawyer from entering the house.

Mapp demanded to see a search warrant. One of the officers held up a piece of paper, which Mapp grabbed and hid inside her clothing. A struggle followed. The police managed to wrest the paper away from Mapp, who was then handcuffed and led upstairs to her bedroom. Telling her to sit on the bed and not to bother anyone, the police began to search her home—her dresser and closet and suitcases, her living room and kitchen, even her daughter's bedroom. Outside Mapp's lawyer declared that what they were doing was against the law. The police ignored him.

When no evidence of any crime was found in Mapp's second-floor home, the police officers went down to the basement of the house to continue their search. There they noticed an old trunk, opened it, and found some books and pictures that they claimed were obscene. The police seized the material as evidence and arrested Mapp for possession of obscene materials, a violation of a state law in Ohio.

Mapp protested. She tried to convince the police that the materials were not hers but belonged to a former tenant. Nonetheless, she was arrested and brought to trial.

Mapp pleaded "not guilty" to the charge. During her trial, no search warrant was ever produced. The books and pictures, therefore, had been illegally seized. Yet despite this fact, the evidence was introduced at her trial. Since 1914, it had been the law that such illegally seized evidence could not be admitted in federal court. But Mapp was being tried in a state court. She was found guilty and sentenced to one to eight years in prison.

Mapp and her lawyer appealed her case to the Ohio Supreme Court. That court affirmed her conviction on technical grounds related to Ohio state law, not the Fourth Amendment.

Mapp then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to review her case. In 1961, four years after her conviction, the Court agreed to hear Mapp v. Ohio. The issues that the justices decided to consider were not whether the Ohio state law was unconstitutional but rather (1) whether the police had the right to enter Mapp's home without a search warrant and (2) whether the evidence taken could be admitted in a state court.

The Supreme Court decided six to three in Dollree Mapp's favor. It ruled that the officers had not had the right to enter and search her home without a warrant and that no evidence seized during such an illegal search could be used against her in a state court. Justice Thomas C. Clark wrote the majority opinion, citing the Fourth Amendment's ban on illegal searches and seizures:

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, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Justice Clark concluded: "We hold that all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution is, by the same authority, inadmissible in a state court."

With this ruling, the Court was extending the exclusionary rule that federal judges sometimes exercised—throwing out evidence that does not conform to exact constitutional standards. The Mapp decision applied the exclusionary rule to state as well as federal courts.

Dollree Mapp was therefore free. Her conviction was overturned. The Supreme Court of the United States had safeguarded an important constitutional right, and the rule of law had finally prevailed.

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