Commentary

12.22.14

Not to be Forgotten: One Cleveland Woman’s Case Changed the Rule of Law

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Life changing moments often come at us out of the blue and so it was for Dollree Mapp.

Early on May 23, 1957, Dollree was alone in her Cleveland home, enjoying her privacy. When her doorbell rang, she had no idea that what happened next would change state laws on how evidence should be handled and establish her legacy as a woman who spoke up for her rights.

That morning three plainclothes Cleveland police officers visited Dollree in response to a tip regarding the location of a suspect in a recent bombing of the home of future boxing promoter Don King. The officers asked to enter Dollree’s house. She called her lawyer, who instructed her not to let them in without a search warrant.

Learn more about Mapp v. Ohio.

The officers forced themselves into her home and, when Dollree again asked to see a warrant, one of the officers held up a piece of paper. She snatched the paper and hid it in her blouse. After retrieving the paper, an officer handcuffed Dollree and proceeded to search her home. The search resulted in the discovery of risqué books, sketches, and “lewd and lascivious” photographs, which Dollree said belonged to a former tenant.

Dollree Mapp was charged with possession of obscene material and convicted in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas even though no valid search warrant was ever produced in court. At the time, illegally seized evidence was not admissible in federal court. That rule did not pertain to state court.

Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Dollree’s appeal, with the ACLU filing a friend-of-the-court brief. The Supreme Court ruled in her favor, stating that the Fourth Amendment’s protections against illegal search and seizure applied to proceedings in state courts, as well as proceedings in federal courts.

This woman, who Cleveland police officers referred to as “belligerent,” knew her rights. Her name has since been etched in legal history, with Mapp v. Ohio taught in law schools throughout the country.

Throughout much of her life Dollree Mapp was a lively individual with a lot to say and her run-in with police officers in 1957 certainly was not her last. In recent years, however, she lived a very quiet life. She passed away on October 31 in Georgia at the age of 90 or 91. It was only earlier this month that her death was announced in the media.

Mapp v. Ohio may not be the first case one may think of when monumental civil liberties cases come to mind, but it is a case that has shaped history. Dollree’s legacy is one that will not be forgotten, as cases involving interactions with police continue to remain at the forefront. She knew her rights and because of that she was able to change the rule of law.

 

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