RIP Dollree “Dolly” Mapp – the Rosa Parks of the 4th Amendment

A few weeks ago, Dollree “Dolly” Mapp died quietly and few paid attention. In fact, reports of her death only recently surfaced in the New York TimesVox, and the Marshall Project. But while the name “Dollree Mapp” wouldn’t particularly stand out to the average joe, anyone who has received a cursory education in law should recognize her last name. Mapp v. Ohio is an incredibly famous Court decision from 1961, credited for starting a “due process revolution.” Wayne LaFave, a professor of law at the University of Illinois and former Visiting Professor, Michigan Law School, has called Ms. Mapp “the Rosa Parks of the 4th Amendment.” Powerful stuff.

So who is Dollree Mapp and what did she do?

In May of 1957, police had been investigating a bombing at the house of Don King, a racketeer. They were tipped that the suspect of the bombing might have been hiding in Mapp’s house in Cleveland. When officers arrived at her house, they demanded to be let in but she refused. Three hours later, more police arrived with a “warrant” – a piece of paper they held up but refused to let Mapp read. She grabbed the paper from the officer. The officer said he was going to go after it, to which Mapp replied, “No you are not.” The officer grabbed it back without Mapp ever reading it. She suspected it was blank.

After the police captured their suspect in the house (though he was later cleared of the crime), they continued to search every inch of the house, on a dubious warrant. They found a sketch of a nude and four “obscene” books. Mapp told them the items belonged to a former tenant, for whom she was holding on to the items. She was nonetheless charged for possession of obscene materials under an Ohio law. A jury took 20 minutes to convict Mapp. She was sentenced to seven years in jail.

Mapp appealed when she was out on bond. She lost in the Ohio Supreme Court but she appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to hear her case. Oral argumentation in Mapp v. Ohio was exceptionally exciting. The justices absolutely pummeled Ohio’s lawyers for their laws and its stupidity. Mapp’s attorney evidently was profoundly energetic and convincing as well.

The Justices were initially unanimous in their disagreement with the Ohio law for its First Amendment violations. But when Justice Tom C. Clark began to write the opinion, he began to focus more on the Fourth Amendment, the amendment that prevents unreasonable search and seizure. At the Supreme Court, it was clear the police never obtained a search warrant. There are few better depictions of Black policing at the time than that by Lewis Katz, a law professor at Case Western and former Instructor at Michigan Law: “The illegal entry of Mapp’s house by the police was nothing extraordinary; it was an everyday fact of life for blacks and other racial minorities. Police throughout America were part of the machinery of keeping blacks ‘in their place,’ ignoring constitutional guarantees against unreasonable arrests and searches and those that barred use of ‘third-degree’ tactics when questioning suspects.”

Many states at the time, including Ohio, allowed unconstitutionally (i.e. without a search warrant) seized evidence to be used in trial. So while citizens had a right against unreasonable searches and seizures, there was no remedy. Five Supreme Court Justices threw out Mapp v. Ohio and created the exclusionary rule – evidence obtained without a search warrant cannot be used in trials.

The exclusionary rule remains a crucial component of the American justice system. This year’s first Supreme Court case, Heien v. North Carolina, centered on the Fourth Amendment and ruling one way would invoke the exclusionary rule to discard evidence of cocaine possession. Today, when criminal justice seems to be a completely forgone institution, largely because of the lack of grand jury indictments in Ferguson and Staten Island, it’s nice to remember that there are still some heroes in the fight for criminal justice.


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