Enforcing Fourth Amendment Rights through Federal Habeas Corpus


This article reassesses the use of federal habeas corpus to enforce the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited virtually all substantive review of search-and-seizure claims in federal habeas proceedings. A wave of critical commentary followed, arguing that there was no legitimate reason to distinguish the Fourth Amendment from other constitutional rights. In recent years, however, this anomaly in habeas corpus practice has gone almost entirely unexamined despite dramatic changes in the law governing both the Fourth Amendment and habeas corpus itself.

This article does two things. First, it reviews the history of habeas review of search-and-seizure claims, concluding that the basis for current doctrine was once stronger than its early critics admitted. Second, this article shows that subsequent changes in both the exclusionary rule, and in habeas practice generally, render current doctrine ripe for reassessment. It examines each of the rationales that might have justified exempting search-and-seizure claims from the ordinary scope of habeas review and shows that legal developments since 1976 render them all inadequate to justify current doctrine. The Court itself has come to ground Stone entirely on the assumption that the incremental cost of enforcing the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule on habeas outweighs the speculative benefits. By adopting a good faith exception to the exclusionary rule; a one-year statute of limitations on habeas petitions; and a reasonableness standard of review in habeas cases, the Court and Congress have now ensured that only the clearest of violations from the most recent cases would give rise to habeas relief. As a result, the cost of applying the writ to search-and-seizure claims is dramatically lowered, and this article thus concludes that Stone should be overruled.

A final section responds to the likely criticism that, because habeas corpus is governed by statute, one should employ traditional notions of statutory interpretation in assessing the continuing validity of the Stone rule. This article demonstrates that those methods would be indeterminate, and in any event, because Stone purported to be a constitutional decision, rather than one interpreting a statute, it should be reassessed according to the criteria that the Court used to justify it in the first place.


Constitutional Law | Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure

Date of this Version

March 2006