Mapp v. Ohio: A Milestone Ruling Against Illegally Obtained Evidence

Key Supreme Court Case in Criminal Procedure

Former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Earl Warren (1953–1969)
Former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Earl Warren (1953–1969). Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, decided on June 19, 1961, was a key Supreme Court case in the field of criminal procedure. The Court decided evidence that was illegally obtained would not be admissible in court. 

The Case Behind Mapp v. Ohio

On May 23, 1957, Cleveland police wanted to search the home of Dollree Mapp, who they believed might be harboring a bombing suspect along with possibly having some illegal betting equipment.

When they first came to her door, Mapp did not allow the police to enter stating that they did not have a warrant. A few hours later, the police returned and forced their way into the house. They claimed to have a valid search warrant, but they did not allow Mapp to inspect it. When she grabbed the warrant anyway, they handcuffed her. While they did not find the suspect or the equipment, they did find a trunk containing pornographic materials which violated Ohio law at the time. At the original trial, the court found Mapp guilty and sentenced her to jail despite no evidence of a legal search warrant being presented. Mapp appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court and lost. She then took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court and appealed, arguing that the case was essentially a violation of her First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

The Supreme Court Decision (1961)

The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren ended up siding with Mapp in a 6–3 vote.

However, they chose to ignore the question of whether a law against the possession of obscene material violated her right to freedom of expression as explained in the First Amendment. Instead, they focused on the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. In 1914, the Supreme Court had ruled in Weeks v. United States (1914) that illegally obtained evidence could not be used in federal courts.

However, the question remained whether this would be extended to state courts. The question was whether Ohio law failed to provide Mapp with her Fourth Amendment protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures." The Court decided that "...all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution is, by [the Fourth Amendment], inadmissible in a state court."

Mapp v. Ohio: Exclusionary Rule and 'Fruit of the Poisonous Tree'

The Supreme Court applied the exclusionary rule and "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine articulated in Weeks and Silverthorne to the states in Mapp v. Ohio in 1961. It did so by virtue of the incorporation doctrine. As Justice Tom C. Clark wrote: 

Since the Fourth Amendment's right of privacy has been declared enforceable against the States through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth, it is enforceable against them by the same sanction of exclusion as is used against the Federal Government. Were it otherwise, then, just as without the Weeks rule the assurance against unreasonable federal searches and seizures would be "a form of words," valueless and undeserving of mention in a perpetual charter of inestimable human liberties, so too, without that rule, the freedom from state invasions of privacy would be so ephemeral and so neatly severed from its conceptual nexus with the freedom from all brutish means of coercing evidence as not to merit this Court's high regard as a freedom "implicit in the concept of ordered liberty."

Today, the exclusionary rule and "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine are regarded as basic principles of constitutional law, applicable in all U.S. states and territories.

Significance of Mapp v. Ohio

The Supreme Court decision in Mapp v. Ohio was quite controversial. The requirement for ensuring that evidence was legally obtained was placed on the court. This decision would open up the court to a number of difficult cases concerning how to apply the exclusionary rule. Two major Supreme Court decisions have made exceptions to the rule created in Mapp. In 1984, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger created the "inevitable discovery rule" in Nix v. Williams. This rule states that if there is a piece of evidence that would have eventually been discovered through legal means, then it is admissible in a court of law.

In 1984, the Burger Court created the "good faith" exception in U.S. v. Leon. This exception allows evidence to be allowed if a police officer believes that his or her search is, in fact, legal. Thus, the court needs to decide if they acted in "good faith." The court has decided this for instances where there were problems with the search warrant that the officer was not aware of.

Was Boxing Behind It?: Background on Dollree Mapp

Previous to this court case, Mapp had sued boxing champion Archie Moore for breach of promise for not marrying her.

Don King, the future fight promoter for such boxing stars as Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, George Foreman, and Mike Tyson, was the target of the bombing and gave the police the name Virgil Ogletree as the possible bomber. That led the police to Dollree Mapp's home, where they believed the suspect was hiding.

In 1970, 13 years after the illegal search that culminated in Mapp v. Ohio, Mapp was convicted of having in her possession $250,000 worth of stolen goods and drugs. She was sent to prison until 1981.