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Dollree Mapp dies at 91; arrest led to landmark search warrant ruling

Dollree Mapp, whose 1957 case led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling on search warrants, dies at 91

On May 23, 1957, three police officers arrived at Dollree Mapp's Cleveland duplex, looking for a man they believed had been involved in a bombing. Mapp, a streetwise woman who knew her rights, refused to let them in without a search warrant.

They didn't have one.

"Three hours later, I heard glass crashing," Mapp told the Miami Herald many years later, recalling how the officers broke into her home.

They found their suspect but they also arrested Mapp after discovering books and a sketch they alleged were pornography. Her subsequent conviction on obscenity charges set in motion a climactic legal battle—one that would radically alter policing in America.

In a landmark 1961 ruling, the Supreme Court reversed Mapp's conviction and compelled state courts, including those in Ohio, to throw out evidence obtained illegally—a basic protection under the 4th Amendment.

Mapp vs. Ohio became the first in a string of historic decisions in the 1960s that redefined the rights of the accused. In 1963, the case of drifter Clarence Gideon led the Supreme Court to establish the right of poor defendants to court-appointed lawyers. In 1966 the case of Ernesto Miranda, deprived of legal counsel during an interrogation that led to a confession, shaped the ruling that police must inform suspects of their basic rights, including the right to remain silent.

"Those three cases--Gideon, Miranda and Mapp—changed policing forever," said Priscilla Machado Zotti, who teaches constitutional law at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and wrote a book about the Mapp case.

Mapp, who has been called the "Rosa Parks of the 4th Amendment," died Oct. 31 of natural causes in Conyers, Ga., said Tiffany Mapp, her great-niece and legal guardian. She was 91. Mapp's death had not been reported at the time except for a small announcement by the funeral home.

Although Mapp had led a quiet life in recent years, anyone in her sights knew she was a formidable woman. "If you didn't give Dollree her way, your life was going to be miserable," her great-niece said. "She was just a very strong-willed, very assertive woman."

Born Oct. 30, 1923 in Forest, Miss., she was one of seven children of a Cherokee cattleman and his African American wife, a schoolteacher. She left them when she was 10 to live with an aunt in Cleveland. At 15 she was pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Barbara.

"I gave my mother fits," Mapp told author Carolyn N. Long in the 2006 book "Mapp v. Ohio: Guarding against Unreasonable Searches and Seizures."

In Cleveland Mapp met and married prizefighter Jimmy Bivins, but he was physically abusive. "I had to leave him or kill him," Mapp told Long, "and I wasn't ready to kill him."

After divorcing him, Mapp was briefly engaged to another boxer, Archie Moore. She sued him for breach of promise when he called off the marriage.

Despite the breakups she continued to socialize with people from the boxing world, including Don King, who ran one of Cleveland's largest racketeering operations before becoming a famous boxing promoter.

It was King's house that had been bombed and King's tip that led police to Mapp's door.

In Ohio, search warrants were required under state law but, according to Zotti, police routinely conducted searches without them. Such conduct was upheld by the Supreme Court in a 1949 case called Wolf vs. Colorado, which established that 4th Amendment restrictions on illegally obtained evidence—called the exclusionary rule-- did not apply to state prosecutions, only federal ones.

But Mapp had grounds to challenge the officers who crashed through her door--and they knew it. When she demanded to see a warrant, one of the officers waved a piece of paper at her. She quickly snatched it and stuffed it in her bosom, provoking the officer to shove his hand inside her dress to retrieve it.

She never got a good look at the document, but if she had she would have seen that it was not a warrant but an affidavit requesting one, said Zotti, who was given the document years later by the officer who took it from Mapp.

With Mapp in handcuffs, the raid proceeded, turning up the bombing suspect (who was later cleared) and the sexually explicit material. Mapp said it belonged to a former tenant, but she was found guilty and sentenced to a maximum term of seven years in prison.

After losing her appeal, her lawyers took the case to the Supreme Court, seeking a reversal of her conviction on the grounds that Ohio's obscenity law violated the 1st Amendment.

During oral arguments, the court under Chief Justice Earl Warren made clear they thought little of Ohio's law, which made mere possession of pornography a crime, and changed the focus of the case to the 4th Amendment.

In June 1961, the court, on a 5 to 4 vote, overturned the 1949 ruling and held that the exclusionary rule applies to states. It threw out the evidence Cleveland police had procured during its illegal search and acquitted Mapp.

"Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws, or worse, its disregard of the charter of its own existence," said Justice Tom Clark, who wrote the majority opinion. "The criminal goes free, if he must, but it is the law that sets him free."

Several years after the ruling, Mapp moved to New York, where she again tangled with the law. Police raided a home she owned in Queens in 1970—this time with a valid warrant—and seized $250,000 in heroin and stolen property. She was charged with possession of narcotics and convicted in 1971.

After exhausting her appeals, she served about eight years in a New York state prison, until December 1980, when her sentence was commuted by Gov. Hugh Carey.

After her release, she worked various jobs, including running a dress shop and an insurance business. Her daughter Barbara died in 2002, leaving Mapp with no immediate survivors.

"Everything happens for a reason," Mapp said in Long's book. "I am comfortable with the choices I have made in my life, and I'm not embarrassed about anything I've done. I have lived my life as I see fit."

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