Was Watertown’s Door-to-Door Search for Bombing Suspects a Violation of the Fourth Amendment?

Armored vehicles, tanks and swarms of heavily armed law enforcement set the scene for the door-to-door search in Watertown, Massachusetts, Friday. Some residents answered with their hands above their heads as agents rushed into their homes in their manhunt for one of the Boston bombing suspects. But the search itself has some questioning its legality from a civil liberties standpoint.

SWAT team members search for one remaining suspect at a residential building on April 19, 2013 in Watertown, Massachusetts. Earlier, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus police officer was shot and killed at the school’s campus in Cambridge. A short time later, police reported exchanging gunfire with alleged carjackers in Watertown, a city near Cambridge. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Although few would argue against the hunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — who was apprehended late Friday night and received charges Monday from his hospital bed for his alleged involvement in the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon and other crimes that followed — some wondered how the FBI and Boston Police Department’s searches of Watertown homes fit with protections allotted in the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment protects against search and seizure of private property without a warrant. There is an exception though in exigent circumstances. Cornell University Law School describes this as occurring “when police officers believe they have probable cause and there is no time to obtain a warrant.”

Members of a police SWAT team talk to a man while conducting a door-to-door search for 19-year-old Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev on April 19, 2013 in Watertown, Massachusetts. After a car chase and shoot out with police, one suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was shot and killed by police early morning April 19, and a manhunt is underway for his brother and second suspect, 19-year-old Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev. The two men are suspects in the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15, that killed three people and wounded at least 170. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Atlantic Wire contacted the ACLU about what went down April 19 in Watertown just hours after the other suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed in a shootout. Executive Director for the ACLU of Massachusetts told the Wire they were interested in hearing from residents about their experience with law enforcement during the search:

Rose said that the organization had received a number of concerned comments from people about the searches that took place, including some from residents of Watertown. None, however, from people whose homes had been searched.


Calling the searches “a fourth amendment question that wouldn’t change whether or not the shelter-in-place” was in effect, Rose explained that the organization’s hands were tied. “We’re concerned about any precedent that this might set,” Rose said. “and are interested in hearing from people whose rights may have been violated.”

A Watertown resident and Boston Globe employee was at home when the SWAT team knocked on her door. Food editor Sheryl Julian described the interaction:

“The SWAT team knocked on every door,” Julian said. “They came in but they didn’t go through the house. We told them we had been through the basement. They went through the garage, in every bush, the whole team, rifles poised, through every single inch of this neighborhood. And every single inch of our house outside.”

They were very calm, just having a conversation when they came to the door.

“They asked, ‘Have you seen anyone? Have you checked around? Very polite.’”

They were going from door to door.

And then, just as quickly, they were gone.

“It was very quiet.”

SWAT team members go door-to-door searching for 19-year-old Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev on April 19, 2013 in Watertown, Massachusetts.  (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

But based on videos that have emerged since the manhunt — one showing law enforcement banging on a home’s door, bringing the owner outside and having him keep his hands up as the agents enter the house — some on Twitter are wondering if everyone’s experience was as polite. Here’s the video:

People on Twitter have been questioning just how “voluntary” these searches were.




If law enforcement was found to have “probable cause” in this situation in court, the search wouldn’t need to be voluntary nor would it need a warrant based on the exception to the Fourth Amendment requirement mentioned above.

Rose told the Wire, the ACLU is working to “get facts on the ground of what really happened.”