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Monday, April 11, 2016

LAWn Signs: Can the Fourth Amendment be Funny?

How do you point out the absurdity of a doctrine that has serious overtones involving fundamental liberty interests and law enforcement needs?  How do you engage a citizenry that doesn’t read Supreme Court cases or the brilliant law review articles that analyze those opinions?  I don’t really know, but Stephen Henderson (Oklahoma) and I have tried an experiment that combines analytical rigor and lighthearted humor, constitutional analysis and actual lawn signs.  Howard kindly posted about the launch, but I wanted to explain the reasoning.   

It all begins with a simple question:  What is the constitutional significance of the proverbial “keep off the grass” sign?  The question asked by curmudgeonly neighbors everywhere centers a new article and public education campaign focused on the Fourth Amendment. 

First, the legal issue:  In Florida v. Jardines, the Supreme Court addressed whether police could walk a drug-sniffing dog to a homeowner’s front door.  The Court decided in the negative, but based its holding on what it called the “implicit license” to approach homes, which required analyzing the social customs of peddlers, pamphleteers, aluminum-siding salesmen, and girl scouts.  Essentially, Justice Scalia reasoned that homeowners do not give implied license to drug sniffing dogs to sniff our doorways, so the resulting action was a Fourth Amendment search. 

The open question resulting from this decision, of course, is “what on earth is an implied license?” The obvious law professor answer to such an admittedly odd decision is to change the implicit license by explicit signs (Fourth Amendment LAWn signs). 

So in a serious, but not to be taken too seriously way, we wrote a short article appropriately titled LAWn Signs:  A Fourth Amendment for Constitutional Curmudgeons, to be published in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law.

We then decided to actually go ahead and create these lawn signs (LAWn signs) and develop an entire website devoted to Fourth Amendment public education.  The FouthAmendmentSecurity.com website tries to use a bit of humor to engage people about their Fourth Amendment rights.  Our hope is to cover the lawns of America with reminders of Fourth Amendment principles.

And the serious side of the project was highlighted last month when the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided United States v. Carloss, in which the federal appellate judges debated the constitutional significance not only of the defendant’s “No Trespassing” signs, but also of hypothetical signs just like those available for purchase on the LAWn Signs website. 

So check it out.  Post a sign outside your home and send us a photo.  Share the website with social media.  Join the FourthAmendmentSecurity movement. 

Posted by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson on April 11, 2016 at 10:21 AM | Permalink


State constitutional rights are important too.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 12, 2016 1:50:59 PM

If I am a citizen of the State of Washington, where the right to privacy is enshrined in the State Constitution, may I also assert that right on my lawn sign?

Posted by: Paul Sonnenfeld | Apr 11, 2016 10:20:29 PM

nice touch ... I see kids putting them on their doors to keep out tyrannical parents

Posted by: Joe | Apr 11, 2016 11:43:03 AM

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