Andy Griffith and the Fourth Amendment, RIP

This video making the rounds features the wonderful Andy Griffith, who sadly passed away this week, in character explaining the importance of due process to Opie. He reveals a profound reverence the principles of Fourth Amendment. More precisely, he is abiding by the principles of the exclusionary rule declaring that improperly obtained evidence is “poisoned fruit.” There is debate over the propriety of this rule as a Fourth Amendment enforcement mechanism, but, that matter aside, modern audiences might find this scene somewhat jarring.

This is of course an idealized characterization of local law enforcement’s devotion to due process. Surely not all sheriffs were like this back then, although sheriffs in particular do have a reputation of genuinely trying to serve their community, often authentically attempting to respect base protections. And, even regardless of the character’s benevolence, this interchange seems somewhat plausible given when it took place, doesn’t it? The scene feels more incredible in the modern day, now that the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act have destroyed most of what was left of the Fourth Amendment after decades of abuse in the name of stopping crime, drugs, illegal guns, money laundering, or tax evaders.

In 2008 Congress retroactively granted indemnity to the Bush administration for having ordered an arm of the military, the NSA, to spy on telecommunications without a traditional judicial warrant or even the phony Justice Department FISA Court’s approval. The law eviscerated the warrant requirement that had already been greatly weakened by the 1978 FISA law, and marked a sad development in American liberty, yet it was just one episode in the continuing decline of American respect for privacy. A very real shift in social values concerning state power has overtaken the U.S. and much of the change has been quick. Even as recently as ten years ago, the idea that President Bush could spy on our public library records bothered many Americans. Today, the president can do much more than that and Americans widely capitulate to these conditions as the new normal. As for the local sheriffs, even this relatively community-oriented institution has become roped into the nationalization and militarization of domestic law enforcement. Anti-terror legislation has moreover given the feds the official authority to work and share data with local officials (and others). Today, Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife might find it prudent to check in with Washington before destroying any questionably obtained audio evidence.

This post surely does not do Andy Griffith justice. His career and cultural impact were tremendous. Yet this video can’t help but remind me that his most famous work represents a time when mainstream America saw value in respecting justice, even if unevenly, when its TV lawmen at least had some interest in protecting and serving and doing it by the book. The country had many problems but at least pop culture icons were nominally in favor of the Fourth Amendment.

The Constitution. The Bill of Rights. Standards of evidence. Prohibitions on torture. Separation of powers. Limits on government. Today these notions sadly seem even quainter than Mayberry.

Anthony Gregory is a former Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books American Surveillance and The Power of Habeas Corpus in America.
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