Mapp v. Ohio Turns 50: A Look at Warren Court’s Rights of...

Mapp v. Ohio Turns 50: A Look at Warren Court’s Rights of Defendants


On June 19, 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Mapp v. Ohio that unlawfully seized evidence could not be admitted “as a matter of federal law.”  Not only does this year mark the 50th anniversary of the decision that fortified the exclusionary rule, it also marks the turning point for the Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren.

By the time Justice Warren retired in 1969, his court had undergone a radical shift in American criminal procedure, giving more rights to criminal defendants.

Richard Nixon, still president at the time of Warren’s retirement, lauded the 14th chief justice for presiding for 16 years with “fairness, integrity and dignity.”  To this Warren replied: “We serve only the public interest as we see it, guided only by the Constitution and our own consciences.”

Warren’s was a “court of action” that didn’t try to sidestep difficult cases with claims that they were “moot” or “unripe.” His court took controversial issues head on, often deciding them in favor of individual rights.

Mapp v.Ohio (1961), The Fourth Amendment, and The Exclusionary Rule

In Mapp v. Ohio, the Supreme Court extended the search and seizure Exclusionary Rule to apply to state cases. Since 1914, federal courts had been prohibited from admitting illegally seized evidence; however, state courts were still permitted to use their discretion in deciding whether to admit or exclude such evidence.

During an illegal search of Dollree Mapp’s home, officers arrested her for violating an Ohio law prohibiting the possession of obscene material.  Mapp had claimed no knowledge of the pornographic contents of a trunk found in her basement and belonging to former tenant.

At the time the Supreme Court agreed to hear Mapp’s case, her attorney was arguing that an Ohio law criminalizing the mere possession of obscene material violated Mapp’s rights under the First Amendment.

Legend goes that Justice Tom Clark, who had been assigned to write the opinion favoring the defendant on First Amendment grounds, quickly convinced other justices to vote with him and impose the search and seizure exclusionary rule on states under the Fourth Amendment.

Gideon v.Wainwright (1963), The Sixth Amendment, and Due Process

In Gideon v.Wainwright, the Supreme Court held that under the Sixth Amendment states are required to provide defense attorneys to indigent criminal defendants in felony cases. The case arose from the arrest of Clarence Gideon, who was charged in Florida with breaking and entering.

At trial, Gideon, who could not afford representation, asked the court to provide an attorney. Florida, however, only provided free counsel to defendants facing the death penalty.

After being found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison, Gideon filed a petition for release from unjust imprisonment known as a habeas corpus petition. The Supreme Court accepted his appeal after its denial by the Florida Supreme Court.

Justice Hugo Black wrote the opinion in the unanimous decision establishing that the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to an attorney, even if they cannot afford one.

Miranda v.Arizona (1966), The Fifth Amendment, and Miranda Warning

In the landmark case Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled that detained criminal suspects must be informed of their constitutional right to an attorney and against self-incrimination prior to police interrogation.

In 1963, Ernesto Miranda was charged with rape, kidnapping, and robbery.  While being questioned by police, Miranda allegedly confessed to the crimes; however, he had never been informed of his rights. Additionally, Miranda, a high-school drop out with a history of mental problems, did not have a lawyer present.

Miranda was convicted on the strength of his confession alone. Miranda appealed, stating his confession was obtained unlawfully. After the Arizona Supreme Court upheld his conviction, Miranda appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Miranda’s victory to have his confession excluded was narrow (5-4) but the consequences were far-reaching. The decision, written by Chief Justice Warren, made clear that under the Fifth Amendment the police must warn criminal suspects against self-incrimination.

The Warren Court’s innovative approach to criminal justice was most drastic in the cases cited above; however, there were also less famous cases, like one mandating that states provide trial transcripts to criminal defendants seeking appeal, that also made a great impact.

Under Warren, the Supreme Court maintained the position that criminal defendants with limited resources and an ignorance of complex law must have access to counsel and basic rights.