search, right of. 1 In domestic law, the right of officials to search persons or private property, usually obtained through some form of search warrant authorized by a court. In the United States, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the security of the people "in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures," and requires that a search warrant, based on "probable cause," be obtained by police. The wording of the amendment, however, has proved open to widely varying interpretations. Thus, eavesdropping, including electronic "bugging," was long considered not to require a warrant, and the nature of "probable cause" has been debated over the years.
In the 1960s the Supreme Court strengthened protections against "unreasonable" searches and seizures by applying exclusionary rules, barring the use of illegally collected evidence in court. Since the 1980s, however, a more conservative Court has undercut the force of exclusionary rules, allowing the use of evidence collected "in good faith" even if without a valid warrant. Government officials have been given wider access to telephone and bank records, and a nationwide antidrug campaign has led to the use of "stop and frisk" searches, particularly in the nation's cities. In the 1990s congressional conservatives sought to write into federal statute the greater leeway allowed police by the Court.
2 In international law the right of search denotes the right of a warship to detain and search a private vessel belonging to a foreign national. In peacetime, this right is ordinarily exercised only within the territorial waters (see waters, territorial) of a state and merely as an incident of the power to police such waters, and generally only in such cases as suspected piracy, violation of fishing regulations, or interference with telephone cables. In wartime, however, a belligerent may search neutral vessels on the high seas in order to capture the property of enemy nationals or to remove contraband bound for enemy ports. Forcible resistance to search allows the warship to attack or destroy the vessel or its cargo or to take them as a prize. The right of search is also called the right of visit and search.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.