Lawyers Selling 4th Amendment Rights For $40? Game On.

Michael GrossmanSeptember 29, 2016 6 minutes

You're breathing while you read this, right? Of course you are. Just the slow, unthinking respiration we do when at rest. No big deal. It's a natural function, and it happens whether you think about it or not.

But how do you remember to breathe if no one reminds you to? Maybe it's asking a lot that you keep in mind that certain fundamental, unspoken rules exist, and you abide by them and enjoy their benefits without the need for an obnoxious poster. If that's the case, don't worry--there's no shortage of places that will sell you items that remind you to do it.

The same principle exists with your Constitutional rights. While there's plenty of debate right now about how the Constitution seems to be interpreted for different groups, the letter of the law guarantees its equal protection for all citizens. Our daily existence is silently framed and supported by these rights. Based on that idea, we don't need to perpetually remind one another of them. If I ran up and down the street shouting "I HAVE FREEDOM OF SPEECH!" over and over, everyone would have known that before I started. Nobody would be surprised by or educated about my rights thanks to my vigorous and obnoxious demonstration of them.

Why is it, then, that a pair of lawyers have seen fit to package and sell the Fourth Amendment?

How Much Does 4th Amendment Protection Cost? Wait...No, What?

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is the amendment that protects citizens and their property from the tyranny of a police state. To quote the Constitution itself:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This amendment along with the others in the Bill of Rights are cornerstones of the individual freedoms enjoyed by American citizens. While I will readily grant that not every citizen can specifically name the Fourth Amendment as the one related to search and seizure, I am virtually certain they are aware of the inherent right itself.

Which brings us to today's topic: Fourth Amendment Security, a modest business venture started by two law professors who found a way to turn the U.S. Constitution into a shopping catalog. Self-aware, winking capitalism at its finest.

The site's particular focus is (unsurprisingly) the Fourth Amendment. "Our argument," they maintain, "is that individuals can protect themselves against police intrusion by denying police officers 'license' to search homes, cars, computers, and other possessions, and in the process educate themselves and their neighbors about Fourth Amendment rights." Included in its roster of merchandise is a series of "LAWn Signs" [sic] designed to notify encroaching parties that they are forbidden to trespass upon and illegally search the property in question. Variations of the sign give conditional welcome to "Girl Scouts, Delivery, and Friends," while all versions categorically forbid law enforcement officials from approaching.

The lawyers allege that their idea stemmed from the results of a case in 2013, Florida v. Jardines, in which police coordinated a search of the defendant's premises after they had taken a drug-sniffing dog to his porch, where it had detected marijuana. The court decided that a trespass had taken place because the officers had entered Jardines' property without probable cause (on the strength of an unverified tip), only ascertaining it once they were already on the premises.

The court ruled that the arrest was unconstitutional, but in ruling made reference to a previous case, Kentucky v King, which said that

"A police officer not armed with a warrant may approach a home in hopes of speaking to its occupants, because that is 'no more than any private citizen might do.'"

This has provided officers certain loopholes, in that they can allege they were only entering premises to speak to the occupant when they perceived illegal activity, giving them grounds for probable cause.

In an attempt to close this loophole, LAWn Signs are printed with messages indicating that the home's resident does not consent to be interviewed or addressed by police. Produced and distributed by the custom-printing giant Zazzle, they run $25.95 apiece. If you are also concerned about your torso being subjected to search and/or seizure, you can clothe yourself in a $39.95 t-shirt printed with sassy rejoinders like "If you are still here, you have SEIZED my person."

Fourth Amendment Security maintains that the high cost of the merchandise is set by Zazzle, and is dictated by the distributor's use of its own supplies, production, and distribution. I say that without viewing sales statistics, but I notice even as I type this that some of their shirts have thousands of mostly-positive customer reviews, so maybe buyers don't mind as much as I think they should.

Your Rights Don't Come from Your Lawn.

I get that these products are partially made in jest, though at they same time they purport to spread an important message. Here's the thing, though: your don't have to empty your wallet out to know your rights. You're just as entitled to protection by the Fourth Amendment as you would be wearing one of these shirts, and you'd also have 40 more dollars the offender isn't allowed to seize. The Constitution and two dozen analyses of its every syllable are readily available in paper AND electronic form. In fact, here's a pdf copy to peruse or print at your leisure.

The protections afforded to you by the U.S. Constitution are 100% as effective when unstated as they are when you walk around clubbing everyone over the head with them--other people, by the way, who have identical rights to yours, yet miraculously empty lawns. Your sign, droll though it is, at best states what should hopefully be well-known. Trained officers of the law are very aware that they have to go through established procedures when hoping to search your premises or belongings, because if they don't do it within the bounds of the law, their entire case can be thrown out for Constitutional violations. History is littered with cases of officers getting pretty inventive about probable cause, but even in those instances it's not a matter of ignorance, but rather inconvenient knowledge, of a suspect's rights. Criminals flat-out don't care; their goal in searching and/or seizing your property has nothing to do with flouting your Constitutional rights. A "LAWn Sign" isn't going to afford any further protection than is innately provided by one's citizenship.

I Think I Have "Raising Awareness Fatigue."

The two lawyers who created and franchise obviously aren't fools. Reading over the site's Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section, it becomes very obvious that they know these signs are at best a paper shield, and are primarily meant as tongue-in-cheek conversation starters. They make a point to say that nothing on their website or products is actual legal advice, and that simply putting a sign in your yard might strengthen an argument that your explicitly-stated wishes were violated, but it doesn't carry special legal significance.

They're law professors who found a way to make a few bucks on the side while encouraging "civic education." Who knows? It might work once in a while; everyone's better off knowing the Bill of Rights. I'm not entirely in favor of how their products will inevitably be misinterpreted by the same class of citizen that thinks "Am I being detained?" is some kind of secret traffic-cop destruct code, but the proprietors have made the appropriate disclaimers to try and stave off that inevitable clash.

Maybe I just think it's a little gross that professors of Constitutional law are okay with manipulating it for financial gain. If your concern is genuinely about spreading awareness, campaign for it. Do some grassroots work. Print buttons, hand out leaflets, make and sign petitions, whatever. And of course, continue to teach it to your students. But don't pretend that crass merchandising is really about enriching everyone around you. Own it--it's a free market, and if you want to carve a piece out of something that belongs to everyone and then sell it back to them, it's their choice to buy it.

If this is the path they plan to tread, though, I'd humbly propose just changing the company name to "Amendments Security" so they aren't boxed in to selling people just one of their own rights. If this proposal is accepted, I'd also like to throw my hat in the ring on product design. With that in mind, I present to you: GunFlags! The Second Amendment has never looked so good. They'll be available at Zazzle for $17.95 plus shipping. What a steal!

2nd Amendment flags on AR-15
They're Patri-Awesome!

Ensure every single person at Chipotle is aware that your stylish AR-15 is 100% legal to carry while you get a burrito! They didn't ask, and probably know already, but that's okay--tell them! Tell them again! TELL THEM AGAIN.

5th Amendment Mask

And why stop there? The Bill of Rights alone is a gold mine of individual entitlements you can somehow convince people are reinforced by commodifying them. How about bullhorns with "THIS IS MY FIRST-AMENDMENT RIGHT" written on them? Or a Hannibal Lecter-style mask with the text of the Fifth Amendment on it so people can avoid self-incrimination? I've thoughtfully made a prototype for that one (see right):

Heck, the end-game has to be an entire Bill of Rights, free to you from birth, re-packaged in the most obnoxious way possible and all 10 amendments for only $300. That's 25% off. If you order now, we'll even throw in a completely free second copy of the Bill of Rights, yours, absolutely free, if you just pay shipping and handling.

I'm starting to see the appeal. This stuff practically sells itself!