Wolf v. Colorado

Following is the case brief for Wolf v. Colorado, 338 U.S. 25 (1949)

Case Summary of Wolf v. Colorado:

  • In two Colorado prosecutions for state crimes, evidence against the defendants was allowed at trial even though it was obtained through an unlawful search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
  • The convictions were affirmed by the Colorado Supreme Court.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court also affirmed the convictions.
  • The Court held that even though the Fourth Amendment applied to the states, the exclusionary rule, whereby unlawfully seized evidenced must be excluded from trial, does not.

Wolf v. Colorado Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The Supreme Court’s opinion does not provide any factual background beyond the fact that two criminal prosecutions occurred in Colorado State court.  In those prosecutions, evidence was used at trial to help convict the defendants even though the evidence was obtained illegally in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Other legal sources indicate that this case involved a person, Julius Wolf, who was convicted of conspiracy to perform abortions, which were illegal at the time.  Wolf was convicted based on evidence that was seized by the police in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Procedural History:

  • Defendant Wolf was convicted in the State trial court.
  • The Supreme Court of Colorado affirmed the conviction.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does the exclusionary rule, as a sanction for violations of the Fourth Amendment, apply to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause?  No.

Judgment:

The decision of the Supreme Court of Colorado is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The exclusionary rule does not apply to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.

Reasoning:

The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause does not incorporate all of the original Bill of Rights to the States.  The Court has repeatedly come to that conclusion.  The concept of “due process of law” is a living concept that will change over time.  Therefore, incorporation is not necessary to lock States into the same requirements as the federal government.

The Court acknowledges that the Fourth Amendment does apply to the States.  However, the exclusionary rule, which is the sanction the Court has chosen to punish violations of the Fourth Amendment in federal cases (Weeks v. United States), does not necessarily apply to the States.  In fact, many States have considered and decided not to follow this Court’s decision in Weeks.

There are other remedies for Fourth Amendment violations, such as “internal discipline of police, under the eyes of an alert public opinion,” that States may employ.  Therefore, the Fourteenth Amendment does not require States to use the exclusionary rule to punish Fourth Amendment violations, and the convictions in this case should stand.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Black):

While the Fourth Amendment does apply to the States, the exclusionary rule is not a necessary part of the Fourth Amendment.  It is only a judicially created rule of evidence that Congress may change.

Dissenting Opinion (Douglas):

Both the Fourth Amendment and the exclusionary rule should be applied to the States.  Without the exclusionary rule, there is no effective sanction for a Fourth Amendment violation by the police.

Dissenting Opinion (Murphy):

It is hard to understand why the Court’s opinion cannot go one step further and find that the only way to protect against a Fourth Amendment violation is to apply the exclusionary rule to the States.  The only alternative to the exclusionary rule is no sanction at all.

Dissenting Opinion (Rutledge):

All of the original Bill of Rights should be incorporated to the States.  However, the Court’s slow progress toward that same goal is fine, and it is welcome that the Court finds that the Fourth Amendment applies to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.  Justice Murphy is also correct that without the exclusionary rule, there is no other sanction for violations of the Fourth Amendment.

Significance:

Wolf v. Colorado is an interesting decision because it shows, as Justice Rutledge’s dissent states, the Court’s slow progress towards incorporating the original Bill of Rights to the States.  In this snapshot in history, the Court was ready to find that the Fourth Amendment applied to the States, but not the exclusionary rule.  This case was ultimately overturned 12 years later by Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961), which held that the exclusionary rule does apply to the States.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

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