The Life and Times of Boyd v. United States (1886-1976)

In Boyd v. United States, the Supreme Court held that the fourth and fifth amendments create a zone of privacy encompassing an individual’s person and property. The government, according to Boyd, cannot enter this zone, either by compelling an individual to testify against himself or by subpoenaing or seizing his books and papers for use as evidence against him in a criminal or quasi-criminal proceeding. The Court found an “intimate relation” between the two amendments such that the search and seizure of books and papers may be “unreasonable” even if conducted pursuant to a court order.

Over time, both societal and judicial notions of property and privacy have changed dramatically. In addition, varying public reactions to the problem of crime in the United States have been paralleled by shifting judicial views on the limitations on the government’s constitutional power to apprehend and prosecute criminal suspects. These trends have been reflected in the gradual erosion of the “intimate relation” doctrine and the elimination of the protection that Boyd afforded to individual liberty. During the October Term, 1975, the Supreme Court accelerated this process when it all but overruled that landmark decision. This Note will trace these trends and examine the demise of Boyd.