For the sake of contrast, consider the wording of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment makes clear that only a legal institution which enacts a law, say, "abridging the freedom of speech," would be in violation of the US Constitution; if a private corporation does so, it would not be in violation of this law.

Contrast the wording of the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This passage does not say "shall not be violated by Congress," but rather "shall not be violated," full stop.

Is it a correct inference that the right "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects" extends to even a private corporation? For example, if a corporation, without disclosing such practices in its Terms of Service or Privacy Policy or whatever, infringes on a client's "security in his person," would such corporation be in violation of the Fourth Amendment (irrespective of any other potential legal issues)?

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    The answers below are accurate in theory, but there is a large body of case law involving private corporations/entities/individuals acting as an "agent" of the government. So in practice its a question of how expansively a good defense lawyer can convince the court to read into "agent". – Hasse1987 Feb 8 at 5:12
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    The reason for the language used is that "Searches and Seizures" and how they are carried out are the exclusive domain of the Executive and Judiciary branches of government. Congress, being the Legislature, would have no real power in search and seizure law other than writing the laws which, if violated, would necessitate a search and seizure. Most restrictions on what the executive can do with a warrent are case law (i.e. Judicial Precedent of a judge saying this practice is constitutional/unconstitutional). – hszmv Feb 8 at 13:47
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    @Hasse1987: As a general rule, any private company acting with contract from a government entity is acting as if they were an agent of the government in the eyes of the law. If a private security agency is hired by a town in the U.S. to be the police, they are bound by the constitutional restrictions of the police as if they were hired by the government. – hszmv Feb 8 at 13:49
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    @Hasse1987: If you work for a private company, and that company does contractual work for the government, than the private company is bound by constitution restrictions as if they are an agency of the government. Means the government can't contract out violations of rights to private companies to circumvent restrictions imposed on government. – hszmv Feb 9 at 15:33
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    I suspect that most cases of "unreasonable search[] and seizure[]" (where unreasonable would include undisclosed) by a private corporation could be prosecuted as "trespass" and "larceny" or "theft." – Andrew Ray Feb 9 at 16:33

Is it a correct inference that the right "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects" extends to even a private corporation?

No. It's not even a correct inference that it extends by its own terms to state and local governments. In Barron v. Baltimore (1833), the Supreme Court held that the Bill of Rights was enacted as part of the federal constitution and only restricts the exercise of the federal government's authority. State and local governments are instead bound by the Fourteenth Amendment, which says that

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Over the years, the courts have held that state action that deprives someone of fundamental rights deprives them of life, liberty, or property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Wolf v. Colorado (1949), the Supreme Court held that the right against unreasonable searches and seizures is a fundamental right, so state action violating it is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Most of the Bill of Rights has been held to be "fundamental," and people routinely say "the state violated the Fourth Amendment" instead of "the state violated the Fourteenth Amendment by conducting an unreasonable search of the sort that would violate the Fourth Amendment if conducted by the federal government." Courts will say "the Fourth Amendment, made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth." But the point is that the Fourth Amendment itself is not applicable to anyone except the federal government.

The Fourteenth Amendment, by its terms, only restricts the states. The Fourth Amendment only restricts the federal government. With rare exceptions, neither applies to private entities.


No, it does not

The terms "searches" and "seizures", as used here, are terms of art, and refer to governmental actions, primarily to the actions of law enforcement (police, customs officials, etc). When the US Constitution was written, the memory of "general searches" by British customs officials was still strong, and one of the motives of this amendment was to prohibit any such action on the part of the new government.

Originally the 4th, like other provisions of the Bill of Rights, applied only to the US Federal government, but since the adoption of the 14th Amendment, and the doctrine of "incorporation" it has been applied to the actions of state and local governments.

The only way in which this would apply to a private entity such as a corporation would be if the government were somehow using its powers to assist the private entity, making this "state action".

However, many US states have laws protecting a "right to privacy" in some degree, which might restrict the actions of a private company in such a case, or allow a person to sue and get damages for an improper private search. Such laws do not exist in all US states, and do not have the same coverage in all states where they exist.

Other laws, such as assault and false imprisonment, would apply in some fact patterns.

By the way, although the text of the Fist Amendment starts with "Congress shall make no law" this has been interpreted from a very early date to also prevent administrative action, or other governmental action that infringes the protected rights, not just laws as such.

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    "sake coverage"? I tried to correct that to "same" but it's too small of an edit to make. – Billy C. Feb 8 at 23:20
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    @Billy C Thank you for spotting the typo. Fixed now. – David Siegel Feb 8 at 23:30
  • "The only way in which this would apply to a private entity such as a corporation would be if the government were somehow using its powers to assist the private entity, making this "state action"." The other way around also works. The actions of a private entity may also be limited if it's acting on behalf of the government. For example, the government can't just hire someone to spy on you without probable cause (well, not legally, at least...) As for the last paragraph, that's because executive actions derive their authority from laws passed by Congress (or else they aren't legal at all.) – reirab Feb 9 at 16:47

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