The Framers' Search Power: The Misunderstood Statutory History of Suspicion & Probable Cause

65 Pages Posted: 2 Nov 2007 Last revised: 22 Jul 2013

See all articles by Fabio Arcila, Jr.

Fabio Arcila, Jr.

Touro College - Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center

Date Written: September 1, 2008


This manuscript, the second article of a two-part series, argues that originalist analyses of the Framers' views about governmental search power have devoted insufficient attention to the civil search statutes they promulgated. What attention has been paid, primarily as part of what I term the conventional account, has it that the Framers were divided about how accessible search remedies should be. This article explains why this conventional account is mostly wrong, and explores the lessons to be learned from the statutory choices the Framers made with regard to search and seizure law.

In enacting civil search statutes, the Framers chose to depart from common law standards and instead largely followed the patterns of preceding British civil search statutes. The overwhelming tendency was to link immunity to probable cause, and displace the jury by reserving the issue to federal judges. These choices are surprising because such provisions had been highly contested in the colonies when the British had implemented them. The Framers also promulgated a plethora of other procedural devices that made it harder to access search remedies. Taken together, and because probable cause was a poorly understood concept at the time, these choices show that once in power the Framers seem to have become more interested in protecting governmental search power than in limiting it.

This detailed review of the Framers' civil search statutes offers surprising lessons that have implications both for the role of originalism and contemporary Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

Keywords: common law, civil law, statutes, search, seizure, search and seizure, search & seizure, fourth amendment, 4th amendment, probable cause, reasonable suspicion, suspicion, suspect, immunity, jury, juries, originalism, history, legal history

Suggested Citation

Arcila, Jr., Fabio, The Framers' Search Power: The Misunderstood Statutory History of Suspicion & Probable Cause (September 1, 2008). Boston College Law Review, Vol. 50, p. 363, 2009; Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1026391. Available at SSRN:

Fabio Arcila, Jr. (Contact Author)

Touro College - Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center ( email )

225 Eastview Drive
Central Islip, NY 11722
United States
(631) 761-7111 (Phone)

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