CASE:

STANFORD V TEXAS (1965)

Introduction

 

In 1954, the Texas legislature passed and Governor Allan Shivers signed the state’s loyalty and subversion acts, which made membership in the Communist Party a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

 

Nine years later, in December 1963, a Texas magistrate issued a search warrant for police officers to search the private home of John William Stanford Jr. for any materials or documents related to the Communist Party of Texas. Officers searched Stanford’s home and seized more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. None of the material related to the Communist Party of Texas, however. As a result, Stanford filed a motion to annual the warrant and get his property back. The lower court denied Stanford’s motion without comment, and Stanford was left with only one option. Because the Texas statute stated that local courts were the final decision-makers in this matter, Stanford had to appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Stanford’s case and unanimously ruled that the magistrate had issued a “general warrant,” or writ of assistance, which was prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. Furthermore, the Court said. to be faithful to the First Amendment, lower courts mush issue warrants that are specific.

Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case

The Supreme Court’s decision in Stanford v. Texas, 379 U.S. 476 (1965) is important because it brings together key First and Fourth Amendment issues. The Court found, for example, that Fourth Amendment regulations prohibiting “general warrants” for search and seizure operations also applied to state governments though the Fourteenth Amendment. Moreover, the prohibition on “general warrants” was especially important when items of expression, which are protected by the First Amendment, are among items to be searched or seized.

 

In his opinion for the Court, Justice Potter Stewart said that opposition to writs of assistance had grown out of the “history of conflict between the Crown and the press.” He wrote, “It was in enforcing the laws licensing the publication of literature and, later, in prosecutions for seditious libel that general warrants were systematically used in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.”

 

Stewart argued that it was particularly important for warrants to be specific when “the 'things' [to be seized] are books, and the basis for their seizure is the ideas which they contain.” He added, “No less a standard could be faithful to First Amendment freedoms.”

 

Citation and Decision

Stanford v. Texas, 379 U.S. 476 (1965)  | Full Decision

 

Discussion Questions

 

1. Why did Texas pass loyalty and subversion acts in 1954?

2. Who was John William Stanford Jr.?

3. What does the Fourth Amendment say?

4. How did the Court apply the Fourth Amendment to the states?

5. What was the outcome of this case?

Links

MTSU, First Amendment Center: Stanford v Texas

Oyez: Stanford v Texas