First Amendment Bearing on Probable Cause and Particularity

First Amendment Bearing on Probable Cause and Particularity.—Where the warrant process is used to authorize seizure of books and other items entitled either to First Amendment protection or to First Amendment consideration, the Court has required government to observe more exacting standards than in other cases.119 Seizure of materials arguably protected by the First Amendment is a form of prior restraint that requires strict observance of the Fourth Amendment. At a minimum, a warrant is required, and additional safeguards may be required for large-scale seizures. Thus, in Marcus v. Search Warrant,120 the seizure of 11,000 copies of 280 publications pursuant to warrant issued ex parte by a magistrate who had not examined any of the publications but who had relied on the conclusory affidavit of a policeman was voided. Failure to scrutinize the materials and to particularize the items to be seized was deemed inadequate, and it was further noted that police "were provided with no guide to the exercise of informed discretion, because there was no step in the procedure before seizure designed to focus searchingly on the question of obscenity."121 A state procedure which was designed to comply with Marcus by the presentation of copies of books to be seized to the magistrate for his scrutiny prior to issuance of a warrant was nonetheless found inadequate by a plurality of the Court, which concluded that "since the warrant here authorized the sheriff to seize all copies of the specified titles, and since [appellant] was not afforded a hearing on the question of the obscenity even of the seven novels [seven of 59 listed titles were reviewed by the magistrate] before the warrant issued, the procedure was . . . constitutionally deficient."122 Confusion remains, however, about the necessity for and the character of prior adversary hearings on the issue of obscenity. In a later decision the Court held that, with adequate safeguards, no pre-seizure adversary hearing on the issue of obscenity is required if the film is seized not for the purpose of destruction as contraband (the purpose in Marcus and A Quantity of Books), but instead to preserve a copy for evidence.123 It is constitutionally permissible to seize a copy of a film pursuant to a warrant as long as there is a prompt post-seizure adversary hearing on the obscenity issue. Until there is a judicial determination of obscenity, the Court advised, the film may continue to be exhibited; if no other copy is available either a copy of it must be made from the seized film or the film itself must be returned.124

119 Marcus v. Search Warrant, 367 U.S. 717, 730-31 (1961); Stanford v. Texas, 379 U.S. 476, 485 (1965).

120 367 U.S. 717 (1961). See Kingsley Books v. Brown, 354 U.S. 436 (1957).

121 Marcus v. Search Warrant, 367 U.S. 717, 732 (1961).

122 A Quantity of Books v. Kansas, 378 U.S. 205, 210 (1964).

123 Heller v. New York, 413 U.S. 483 (1973).

124 Id. at 492-93. But cf. New York v. P.J. Video, Inc., 475 U.S. 868, 875 n.6 (1986), rejecting the defendant's assertion, based on Heller, that only a single copy rather than all copies of allegedly obscene movies should have been seized pursuant to warrant.

The seizure of a film without the authority of a constitutionally sufficient warrant is invalid; seizure cannot be justified as incidental to arrest, inasmuch as the determination of obscenity may not be made by the officer himself.125 Nor may a warrant issue based "solely on the conclusory assertions of the police officer without any inquiry by the [magistrate] into the factual basis for the officer's conclusions."126 Instead, a warrant must be "supported by affidavits setting forth specific facts in order that the issuing magistrate may 'focus searchingly on the question of obscenity."'127 This does not mean, however, that a higher standard of probable cause is required in order to obtain a warrant to seize materials protected by the First Amendment. "Our reference in Roaden to a 'higher hurdle . . . of reasonableness' was not intended to establish a 'higher' standard of probable cause for the issuance of a warrant to seize books or films, but instead related to the more basic requirement, imposed by that decision, that the police not rely on the 'exigency' exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, but instead obtain a warrant from a magistrate …"'128

In Stanford v. Texas,129 a seizure of more than 2,000 books, pamphlets, and other documents pursuant to a warrant which merely authorized the seizure of books, pamphlets, and other written instruments "concerning the Communist Party of Texas" was voided. "[T]he constitutional requirement that warrants must particularly describe the 'things to be seized' is to be accorded the most scrupulous exactitude when the 'things' are books, and the basis for their seizure is the ideas which they contain… No less a standard could be faithful to First Amendment freedoms."130

However, the First Amendment does not bar the issuance or execution of a warrant to search a newsroom to obtain photographs of demonstrators who had injured several policemen, although the Court appeared to suggest that a magistrate asked to issue such a warrant should guard against interference with press freedoms through limits on type, scope, and intrusiveness of the search.131

125 Roaden v. Kentucky, 413 U.S. 496 (1973). See also Lo-Ji Sales v. New York, 442 U.S. 319 (1979); Walter v. United States, 447 U.S. 649 (1980). These special constraints are inapplicable when obscene materials are purchased, and there is consequently no Fourth Amendment search or seizure. Maryland v. Macon, 472 U.S. 463 (1985).

126 Lee Art Theatre, Inc. v. Virginia, 392 U.S. 636, 637 (1968) (per curiam).

127 New York v. P.J. Video, Inc., 475 U.S. 868, 873-74 (1986) (quoting Marcus v. Search Warrant, 367 U.S. 717, 732 (1961)).

128 New York v. P.J. Video, Inc., 475 U.S. 868, 875 n.6 (1986).

129 379 U.S. 476 (1965).

130 Id. at 485-86. See also Marcus v. Search Warrant, 367 U.S. 717, 723 (1961).

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Last modified: June 9, 2014