The Special Needs Doctrine and the Fourth Amendment

4th Amendment (Photo Credit: The Huffington Post)

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution states, “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.”  The U.S. Supreme Court uses three approaches in rendering decisions involving the 4th Amendment: the Warrant Approach, the Reasonableness Approach, and the Special Needs Doctrine.

The Warrant Approach (also known as the Traditional Approach) is the approach the Court uses when it requires probable cause and a warrant to be secured in a case to characterize a search and/or seizure to be legal.  Most people are familiar with the aforementioned approach to the 4th Amendment.  The Reasonableness Approach allows law enforcement to engage in a legal search and/or seizure if there’s reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred and probable cause would eventually be obtained by executing the search and/or seizure.

While I’m sure that some people (maybe many) will believe that the Reasonableness Approach to interpreting the 4th Amendment is problematic enough, the Special Needs Doctrine is much more problematic.  The Special Needs Doctrine is employed by the Court to permit law enforcement the right in emergency cases to conduct searches and seizures without a warrant and without probable cause.  These emergencies cases have to be in the interest of protecting public safety.  This doctrine contends that protecting the public safety is far greater a concern than protecting individual privacy.  The Court recognized that there are emergency cases where obtaining a warrant and probable cause is “impracticable.”  The Court posits that law enforcement should be empowered with the ability to act in the interest of protecting public safety and not compromise public safety simply because it was unrealistic to obtain a warrant and probable cause.

Although I’m a strong supporter of giving government the tools it needs to protect the American people, this doctrine does open up the possibility for law enforcement to invade people’s privacy.  Each time law enforcement acts in the name of “protecting public safety” isn’t an authentic effort to safeguard public safety.  As a student of history, I’m aware that the American government has a history of violating individuals’ privacy for selfish and malicious purposes.  One thing we must continue to work on at the national level is finding the right balance between national security and civil liberties.

Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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