Weeks v. United States 232 U.S. 383 (1914)

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WEEKS v. UNITED STATES 232 U.S. 383 (1914)

Weeks v. United States was the Court's single most creative decision under the fourth amendment. To save the amendment as a living constitutional guarantee, the Court endowed it with an enforcement feature, ordering the exclusion from federal trials of evidence obtained through unlawful seizure. Without this exclusionary rule, seized evidence, regardless of its origin, would always be admissible. The rule thus has provided the occasion for judicial articulation of Fourth Amendment reasonableness in later cases.

Under common law, and for the first century of the Constitution's existence, evidence unlawfully seized by government officers was nonetheless admissible in evidence. In boyd v. united states (1886) the Court implicitly discarded this common law principle, but the exclusionary rule, as it has come to be called, was not explicitly enthroned until the Weeks decision. The reason for admitting unlawfully seized evidence, a standard still followed in nearly all other countries, is readily understood. Unlike coerced confessions, which are excluded from trial in all civilized countries because of their untrustworthiness, the fruit of an illegal search is just as reliable when taken without a shadow of authority as when taken under warrant. To exclude the evidence allows a criminal to go free. Absent the exclusionary rule, however, the Fourth Amendment might become a mere paper guarantee of freedom from unreasonable searches without an effective enforcement process. Unlike other guarantees in the bill of rights (for example, right to counsel), the Fourth Amendment affects the pretrial stage of the case and is—apart from the exclusionary rule—not within the power of the trial court to enforce. The secrecy in which searches are planned and executed makes it impossible to seek the advance protection of an injunction, a regular practice when first amendment freedoms are threatened.

The unanimous Weeks opinion said that if unconstitutionally seized evidence were admitted, the Fourth Amendment "might as well be stricken from the Constitution." Furthermore, if the evidence were admitted, courts become parties to the misdeeds of the police, thus compromising the integrity of the judicial process.

The opinion did not, however, make clear whether the exclusionary rule was required by the Constitution or merely was the product of the Court's supervisory power over the lower federal courts and thus subject to negation by Congress. Even if the rule is rooted in the Fourth Amendment, the question remains whether it is a personal right of the defendant or just a deterrent against unlawful searches, discardable if other deterrents can be found. The Weeks opinion appeared to endorse the first position; use of the evidence, said the Court, would constitute "a denial of the constitutional rights of the accused." More recent decisions, however, favor the deterrent theory. Nonetheless, one who is not himself the victim of an unlawful search but is implicated in crime by the seizure does not have standing to challenge admission of the evidence.

Jacob W. Landynski