Responding to the Challenges of Contextual Change and Legal Dynamism in Interpreting the Fourth Amendment

48 Pages Posted: 28 Feb 2012

See all articles by Donald A. Dripps

Donald A. Dripps

University of San Diego School of Law

Date Written: 2011


Granting for purposes of argument the general theoretical case for interpreting constitutional text according to some version of the original understanding, this contribution to the University of Mississippi's 2011 Fourth Amendment symposium argues that consulting founding-era practices at the particular level is not a faithful approach to the original understanding. I develop two lines of objection to specific-practices originalism (SPO). I call one the contextual critique and the second the dynamism critique.

The constitutional text was situated in the context of eighteenth-century institutions and doctrines that disappeared in the nineteenth century. The utter disappearance of the context means that we just don’t know what the founders expected the Fourth Amendment to prohibit, or permit, in a radically different legal and technological environment. The degree of privacy and liberty in 1791 were a product of the contemporary criminal justice system, the economic and technological social circumstances, and the legal regime that limited search-and-arrest powers. The rules of 1791 would have different consequences for liberty and security in a society like today’s, with full-time proactive police and modern technology.

The dynamism critique points out that the 1791 rules of search-and-seizure were not static. Tort law was the legal regime regulating search-and-arrest powers. Illegal detention gave rise to actions for false arrest or false imprisonment. Illegal entries of private premises gave rise to trespass suits. But common law can change. Precedents can be overruled, and new factual contexts require debatable applications of old principles. Most dramatically, common law rules can be trumped by statutes.

If the reasonableness clause perpetuates all the specific 1791 tort rules, the force of the contextual critique becomes overwhelming. If, however, the clause incorporates common law rules subject to plenary statutory revision, the constitutional provision is nugatory. Either the Fourth Amendment freezes search-and-seizure law in the form it had before the advent of modern police and modern technology, or it permits any search or arrest authorized by statute. Some search for principled middle ground seems in order. The interpretive mode most faithful to the original understanding is “aspirational balance of advantage originalism,” a mode practically very similar indeed to competing approaches such as common-law constitutionalism or legal process theory.

Suggested Citation

Dripps, Donald A., Responding to the Challenges of Contextual Change and Legal Dynamism in Interpreting the Fourth Amendment (2011). Mississippi Law Journal, Vol. 81, No. 3, p. 133, 2011. Available at SSRN:

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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