Feeling secure with our families in our own homes against “unreasonable searches and seizures” is essential to social peace and individual happiness. In contrast with this ideal, many colonists prior to the Revolutionary War were searched, and their property seized, by British officers looking for “contraband” in private homes under vague “general warrants.” The ease with which soldiers could infringe upon the private property of colonists was a leading factor in the tension that spilled over into full blown revolution.
English law required officers to swear before a magistrate – or a judge – showing good reason for evidence of criminal activity or illegal goods—a heightened standard we refer to as probable cause. The officer also had to provide additional proof by describing in detail the place to be searched or the person or things to be seized. All of this took place under oath—historically serving as a powerful way to ensure integrity of public officials.
Given how recent and raw of an experience this was for the colonists, they demanded protection against what they experienced at the hands of the King and the British Army. Included as part of the resulting Bill of Rights, the Fourth Amendment specifically addressed the issue of searches and seizures:
“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.”
Utah’s own Constitution contains the same language. These guarantees of our liberty require a few important things. Warrants could not be issued by a judge unless:
- There was probable cause, or legitimate evidence of wrongdoing.
- The officer requesting the warrant swore to his “evidence” under oath or positive affirmation and was held accountable to that oath.
- The officer had to be specific. The place, the person(s), and/or thing(s) to be searched or seized had to be particularly described.
Over the past few decades, communities throughout America—including here in Utah—have seen a rise in “forcible entry” raids conducted by SWAT teams or task forces. These raids are usually conducted professionally and successfully with no problems, and we are grateful for that.
But there are sometimes errors regarding the place to be searched or the person or things to be seized. Or, even when the right house is forcibly entered (for example, with a “no knock” warrant), a family member or other innocent person—or one or more police officers—is injured or killed in the ensuing chaos. These circumstances can be extremely dangerous, and as representatives of the people our job is to make sure that they are minimized to the extent possible.
It is important for our own safety, and the safety of our officers, to keep the balance and check of the Fourth Amendment alive. Law enforcement is a valuable and crucial aspect of our communities, but so is our peace and our individual rights.
In the same way the legislature has established sentencing guidelines across the state, the purpose of House Bill 70 is to enact basic guidelines for judges and officers when seeking a warrant – or legal permission – to forcibly enter a private citizen’s home. The idea is to minimize the risk both to law enforcement and citizens through better judicial oversight. And that’s an idea I think all Utahns can get behind.