Miller Center

Sarah Seo

History, Princeton University

The Fourth Amendment, Cars, and Freedom in Twentieth-Century America

Seo photo

Seo has been selected as the Charles W. McCurdy Fellow in Legal History.

Most scholars have explained the development of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence in the twentieth century as an enduring struggle to limit the police’s discretionary authority to protect individual rights. But by beginning her inquiry with the automobile in American society—one of the most contested sites of the Fourth Amendment, yet the least studied—Seo’s show that the evolution in the law of searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment reflected the more difficult challenge of accommodating the police within the meaning of freedom itself. The mass production of the automobile created the greatest urban disorder at the turn of the century, and the state’s power to regulate the social chaos of the automotive society increasingly encompassed a proactive, discretionary form of policing. Seo’s project traces the implications of this shift in governance from nineteenth-century self-regulation to twentieth-century policing through Fourth Amendment car search-and-seizure cases. By prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures, the Fourth Amendment governed the first point of encounters between individuals and the police. And in the twentieth century, most of those encounters happened in the context of a traffic stop. Car stops and searches thus offer an important perspective not only on how the citizen-police relationship has evolved, but also on how Americans have wrestled with the paradox of discretionary policing in a society committed to the rule of law. Ultimately, the resolution entailed a change in what it meant to live in a free society. 

Fellowship year: 2016

Mentor: David Sklansky, Stanford Law School

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