'Dearest Property': Digital Evidence and the History of Private 'Papers' as Special Objects of Search and Seizure

Donald A. Dripps

University of San Diego School of Law

February 27, 2012

Why does the Fourth Amendment distinctly mention “papers” as well as “effects”? Why should we care? This Article suggests that we should care because modern doctrine’s equation of “papers” with other “effects” produces increasingly disturbing results in an age of dense concentrations of intimate personal information stored on small, portable devices like cell phones and flash drives. The Fourth Amendment says “papers” because the founders perceived the seizure of papers as a grave abuse distinct from the abuse of general warrants or writs of assistance. The evidence for this claim is traced from the 1760’s through the famous but largely unstudied Supreme Court decision in Boyd v. United States in 1884. The evidence suggests that the modern equation of “papers” with “effects” conflicts with both the text and original understanding of the text. The Article also suggests that Boyd’s per se prohibition of seizing papers solely for use as evidence, while not historically implausible, is not historically inevitable either. History has left the door open to the imposition of structural safeguards on the collection of documentary evidence, including digital evidence, so long as those safeguards prevent the indiscriminate, expropriating, unregulated and inquisitorial seizures that were justly condemned at the founding.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 48

Keywords: Fourth Amendment, private papers, computer searches, Boyd

JEL Classification: K14

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Date posted: February 28, 2012 ; Last revised: November 18, 2015

Suggested Citation

Dripps, Donald A., 'Dearest Property': Digital Evidence and the History of Private 'Papers' as Special Objects of Search and Seizure (February 27, 2012). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2012010 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2012010

Contact Information

Donald A. Dripps (Contact Author)
University of San Diego School of Law ( email )
5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States
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