Before 1961, the rule that illegally obtained evidence is excluded at trial applied only to federal law enforcement agencies.  This was referred to as the federal exclusionary rule and was based on the U.S. Constitution’s 4th Amendment prohibition against illegal searches and seizures as well as Fourteenth Amendment Due Process rights.  State law enforcement was not required to follow the same rule.  Laws on search and seizure issues varied widely from state to state.  Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961) is proof of the old legal axiom that good facts make good law while bad facts make bad law.  The simple truth is that one of the biggest factors motivating judges to change existing law is a case with outrageous facts that make the reader wonder how something like that could happen in this country.  Mapp v. Ohio is an example of just such a case. 

Facts of the Case

Dollree Mapp lived alone with her fifteen-year old daughter in an apartment on the second floor of a Cleveland, Ohio duplex. On May 23, 1957, at approximately 1:30 p.m., three police officers arrived at her house and requested admittance to Mapp’s apartment.  They refused to tell her why they wanted to come in and talk to her.  Mapp responded that she would first telephone her attorney[1]. The police later testified they were acting on information from a confidential source that a suspect in the bombing of Don King’s house was hiding at Mapp’s apartment and that her house contained bomb making materials.  However, none of that information was conveyed to Mapp.[2] 

Acting on her lawyer’s advice, Mapp told the officers they could not enter without a search warrant.  The police responded by staking out the house.  At about 4:00 p.m., an officer broke the glass in the back door and forced entry to the house.  The police told Mapp they had a search warrant but refused to show it to her.  The officer waved the paper in her face.  Mapp grabbed the warrant from the officer’s hand and stuffed it down her blouse.  The police grabbed her, retrieved the supposed warrant, and handcuffed her, twisting her wrist until she screamed in pain.  When the lawyer arrived, the police refused to show him the warrant and refused to allow him into the house to speak with Mapp.

The police searched all four rooms of Mapp’s apartment and the basement of the house.  They found 4 little pamphlets, two photographs and a pencil doodle – all of which they claimed were pornographic.  There is conflicting testimony on where these items were found.  Some claimed to have found the articles in Mapp’s dresser and a suitcase.  Others claim to have found them in a cardboard box in the basement.  Both Mapp and another witness testified the alleged pornographic items belonged to a former renter who had recently left and stored his stuff in the basement.  No evidence of the suspected bomber or of bomb making materials turned up in the search. 

 The jury took 20 minutes to convict this feisty African American woman of possessing “lewd and lascivious” books and pictures under Ohio’s pornography law despite the conflicting evidence over who owned the materials. A key fact is that when the case came to trial, the police were unable to produce a valid search warrant. They were unable to produce anything to show a warrant ever existed. Yet, Mapp was convicted and sentenced to 7 years in prison based on a warrantless and illegal search. 

She appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court which concluded that it was an unlawful search because there was no valid warrant.  Nevertheless, Ohio’s high court upheld the conviction.  The Court reasoned that even though the search was unlawful, evidence obtained in an unlawful search and seizure is admissible under Ohio law unless it is taken from the defendant by exercising brutal force or violence.  The judges did not consider twisting Mapp’s wrist brutal enough to exclude the evidence.  The Ohio Supreme Court considered its opinion consistent with Wolf v. Colorado,338 U.S. 25 (1949) which held that the federal exclusionary rule applied only to federal law enforcement agencies, and the states were free to make their own decisions in criminal matters.

Issues in the Case

Through her attorneys, Dollree Mapp appealed her conviction to the United States Supreme Court.  The principal issue before the Court was this: If evidence is discovered during a search and seizure in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, is that evidence admissible at trial?

There were also discussions of whether the case was a better fit under the 1st Amendment free speech provision and whether the 5th Amendment provision on self-incrimination should apply.

Ruling in the Case

 In a 6 to 3 decision the U.S. Supreme Court held: 

 “Moreover, our holding that the exclusionary rule is an essential part of both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments is not only the logical dictate of prior cases, but it also makes very good sense.  There is no war between the Constitution and common sense.  Presently, a federal prosecutor may make no use of evidence illegally seized, but a State’s attorney across the street may, although he supposedly is operating under the enforceable prohibitions of the same Amendment.  Thus, the State, by admitting evidence unlawfully seized, serves to encourage disobedience to the Federal Constitution which it is bound to uphold.”  367 U.S. at 657

The Court reversed the decision of the Supreme Court of Ohio and remanded the case back to the Ohio courts to vacate the conviction.

The Justices Analyzed the issues in Different Ways

The plurality opinion was written by Justice Tom C. Clark on behalf of himself and two other justices. There were three concurring opinions to make the majority vote.  Mapp’s attorneys argued that the Ohio pornography laws infringed on her freedom of speech.  Clark dismissed the argument as moot, focusing instead on the search and seizure issue.

Ohio’s lawyers argued that the exclusionary rule does not apply to prosecutions in state court citing Wolf v. Colorado.  By rejecting Ohio’s argument, the Supreme Court directly over-ruled the Wolf decision.  In discussing evidence illegally seized from Mapp’s home, Clark fell back to an earlier opinion:

If letters and private documents can thus be seized and held and used in evidence against a citizen accused of an offense, the protection of the Fourth Amendment declaring his right to be secure against such searches and seizures is of no value, and, so far as those thus placed are concerned, might as well be stricken from the Constitution.  Quoting Weeks v. U.S. 232 U.S. 383 (1914) at 391.

Clark opined that the right of privacy and the right of due process were basic constitutional rights of the American people and were integral to our freedom and democracy.  He noted:

Those who say, as did Justice (then Judge) Cardozo, that under our constitutional exclusionary doctrine, “[t]he criminal is to go free because the constable has blundered.”  People v. Defore, 242 N.Y. at 21, 150 N.E. at 587.  In some cases, this will undoubtedly be the result.  But, as was said in Elkins, “There is another consideration – the imperative of judicial integrity.”  364 U.S. at 222. The criminal goes free if he must, but it is the law that sets him free.  Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws, or worse, its disregard for the charter of its own existence.  367 U.S. at 659.

Justice Black and Justice Douglas wrote concurring opinions.  Justice Black agreed with the result reached by Clark and the others.  However, he thought the Fourth Amendment standing alone was not sufficient to overturn the conviction.  He believed that the decision should rest on a combination of the Fourth Amendment and the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

Justice Douglas wrote his separate opinion to emphasize the hypocrisy of allowing the states to make rules for criminal prosecutions that conflict with rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. He said: “When we allowed States to give constitutional sanction to the “shabby business” of unlawful entry into a home (to use an expression of Mr. Justice Murphy, Wolf v. Colorado, at 46), we did indeed rob the Fourth Amendment of much meaningful force.”  367 U.S. at 670.  Justice Stewart also wrote a concurring opinion.  He agreed the conviction should be overturned, but he disagreed on the basis.  Judge Stewart wanted to reverse based on the First Amendment and the right to free speech.

There were three dissenting opinions – Justices Harlan, Frankfurter, and Whittaker.  They argued that the plurality unnecessarily reached out to decide a constitutional issue.  They saw no reason to overturn Wolf v. Colorado.  In their view, the states were sovereign governments with a right to enact their own criminal laws and procedures without interference from the federal government.

Conclusion and Long-Term Results of the Case

Mapp v. Ohio has had long-term and far reaching effects on state judicial rules and police procedures.  Before 1961, the Rules of Evidence used in state courts varied markedly from one state to another.  Prosecutors might “forum shop” to try a case in the county with rules most favorable for conviction.  Because of Mapp, Miranda and other criminal cases overturned by the Supreme Court, courts and law enforcement around the country have more consistency in handling criminal cases.  The U.S. government has a set of rules called The Federal Rules of Evidence.  Those rules dictate what evidence is admissible at trial and what evidence is excluded.  For example:  a confession elicited from a defendant who has not been read his rights is not admissible evidence, nor is material discovered during an illegal search.

Over the years, the majority of states began to model their state evidence rules on the Federal Rules of Evidence.  To date: 34 states have basically adopted the federal rules as their own, creating a more uniform system for justice. 



[1] Mapp had hired the attorney to represent her in an unrelated civil matter.  She had no criminal record.

[2] Mapp may have known Don King, who later became a famous boxing promoter.  Her ex-husband was a well- known boxer in Cleveland.

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