“Mrs. Dollree Mapp passed on Friday, October 31, 2014,” read the obituary released by the local Levett and Sons Funeral Home.
That brief notice gave no hint that Dollree was the namesake of Mapp v. Ohio, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that requires the police to get a warrant to search someone’s property.
In 1957, police conducted an illegal raid of Mapp’s Cleveland home. Mapp fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court, finally winning the historic decision in 1961. She later moved to New York City, then spent the past two years living with family in Conyers. She died at the age of 91.
“She was staying down here. She had dementia, so she had to come here,” said niece Carolyn Mapp of Amberbrook Court in Conyers, who shared her home with Dollree.
Chief Judge David Irwin of Rockdale’s Superior Court told the News he was astonished to learn the defendant in such a historic case was living in Conyers. He would have liked the chance to speak with Mapp about the case, he said.
“It is remarkable that what we consider as our right [to be secure against illegal police searches]…did not happen until the Mapp case,” Irwin said. “A right we think we’re automatically born with only came to pass in the past 50 or 60 years.”
Today, every lawyer studies Mapp v. Ohio in law school and every law enforcement officer learns about the case in peace officer academy. It is considered a fundamental Bill of Rights case that expanded the Fourth Amendment’s protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Because of the case, Irwin said, he and other judges regularly review and sign search warrants. And as a former public defender, Irwin was able to get some evidence in cases tossed out because of the Mapp case standard.
In its time, the case had racial undertone as well, as Mapp was black and the police officers were white. In a recent obituary for Mapp in the magazine Essence, a law professor described her as the “Rosa Parks of the Fourth Amendment.”
In 1957, Dollree—better known as Dolly—and her teenaged daughter lived in a Cleveland house that they shared with renters. The police got a tip that the house was being used to operate an illegal lottery. They also believed a suspect in the bombing of the home of Don King—later a famous boxing promoter—might be hiding in Mapp’s house.
On May 23, officers went to the house and demanded to be allowed inside, while refusing to explain why. Mapp refused to let them in without a warrant. After a few hours, officers broke into the house and displayed a phony warrant. Mapp grabbed the piece of paper and shoved it down the front of her dress, apparently hoping to keep it as evidence. The police made her give it back, then handcuffed her and searched the entire house. The paper was actually an affidavit requesting a warrant, according to a legal professor and author who was reportedly given the document by the officer decades later.
The police found no bomber that day. But they did find some gambling materials and “obscene materials” – two books and a pencil drawing of a nude, which Mapp claimed belonged to her tenants. The police charged her with possession of both. In separate trials, she was acquitted of illegal gambling, but was convicted of pornography possession, which carried a prison term. She remained free on bail during the lengthy appeals.
Today, it can be hard to understand how Mapp could have been prosecuted based on a search that even the state of Ohio admitted was completely illegal. After all, the Fourth Amendment has always said that authorities cannot seize personal property without a valid search warrant.
However, the amendment doesn’t say what should happen if the police ignore the warrant requirement. In an earlier case, the Supreme Court ruled that the best way to discourage illegal searches is to ban all illegally obtained evidence from being used in court. That is known as the “exclusionary rule.”
But under the concept of federalism, that decision applied only to federal government police like the FBI. State governments were free to set their own rules of evidence for local police searches. Ohio allowed illegally obtained evidence into the courtroom, on the theory that the facts of a case are more important than where they came from. The only factors stopping Ohio police from warrantless searches was the threat of commanding officers disciplining them, or civilians suing them for trespassing—both of which rarely, if ever, happened.
In Mapp v. Ohio, the court made the sweeping decision that the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule applies to the states, too. That meant all the evidence against Mapp was thrown out and her conviction was erased. In his concurring opinion, Justice William Douglas wrote that the case showed “the casual arrogance of those who have the untrammeled power to invade one’s home and to seize one’s person.”
Since then, the Mapp decision has been praised part of the court’s expansion of civil liberties and protections against police abuses at the time, which also included the creation of the Miranda warning. The decision also has been criticized as creating a “technicality” that can allow obviously guilty people to go free.
That was not Mapp’s last encounter with the law and the Fourth Amendment. In 1971, she was convicted of heroin possession after police searched her New York home—with a valid search warrant, as required by her own landmark case. The governor later commuted her prison sentence.
By all accounts—including her New York Times obituary—Mapp was a strong-willed and sometimes difficult character. She worked for a nonprofit providing legal assistance to prison inmates, and reportedly ran a variety of businesses—legal and otherwise.
Carolyn Mapp told the News she had previously taken care of Dollree for several years prior to moving her to Conyers, but declined to explain the move. Dollree’s ashes reportedly were spread at her former home in New York City.