EACH YEAR, the Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Education sponsors the Lenfest Citizenship Challenge Essay Contest, whereby fourth- and fifth-grade classes from the region focus on one of the amendments of the Constitution. This year, students wrote essays exploring the Fourth Amendment and answered the question: "What's an unreasonable search and seizure?" The first-place winner, the fifth-grade language arts class at Chestnutwold Elementary School in Ardmore, was chosen in a ceremony at the Constitution Center this month. The winning essay:
Reasonable or unreasonable? The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution ensures people the right to be secure in their persons, homes, and belongings, and also limits searches and seizures. So what is a reasonable search? How do we maintain people's civil liberties and privacy, yet keep the American public safe? In order to attempt to balance these rights, we need to first answer the following question, "What is a reasonable search based upon?" We believe that a "reasonable" search should be based upon: securing reliable evidence, the absence of personal prejudices, protecting the masses, and considering immediate danger.
Determining whether evidence is reliable can be complicated, but we feel this is an essential piece to the puzzle. Reliable evidence must be present in order to secure individual's rights. If evidence comes from an anonymous tip, it is often less reliable than from a specific witness. Also, the time and place of a reported violation or crime is important as well. If a witness shares a tip that a violation or crime happened a year ago, this evidence is less reliable than if the incident happened recently. Although it may be difficult and strenuous to determine if evidence is reliable, it is crucial to determine this before proceeding with a search.
Continuing with this point, a reasonable search needs to be free from personal prejudices, stereotypes, or beliefs. This, again, secures an individual's rights under the fourth amendment. For example, picture a teenage boy wearing a hoodie sweatshirt, walking alone at night on a neighborhood street. Maybe a police officer that is on patrol thinks that teenage boys are just plain trouble, or that anybody wearing a hoodie sweatshirt is suspicious. The teenage boy should not be searched just because of this police officer's personal opinions. Nobody should be searched based on these empty beliefs. However, if the boy has been identified by a witness or is seen running from a crime, the police have reliable evidence in order to conduct a search. Trained officials and law enforcement should be trained, practice, and follow guidelines for conducting reasonable searches. Most importantly, they should be evaluated on their conduct and held to the highest standard in order to secure individual's civil liberties.
A reasonable search is justified when protecting the masses. For example, we have all been screened and/or searched at the airport and while entering an arena for a sporting event or concert. The society as a whole has rights secured under the Fourth Amendment and these searches are necessary in order to protect the masses. Certainly the rights of individuals are important and should not be violated due to prejudices or poor evidence. However, these types of reasonable searches do not violate an individual's rights, but rather ensures that everyone is safe and secure.
Another aspect of a reasonable search is the consideration of immediate danger. If any person or group of people is in immediate danger, a thorough search should be conducted quickly and without a warrant. For example, if there is a kidnapping, police should be able to freely stop and search people and their cars. Lack of privacy or possible embarrassment should not hinder this search in any way. There is immediate danger in this situation, and therefore, it is reasonable to search. This leads back to keeping the American people safe and secure, which is the basis for the fourth amendment.