Multiple Location Search Warrants and Plural Nouns in the Constitution

The Fourth Amendment protects people in their “houses, papers, and effects” – all plural, and understood to extend to an indefinite number of such belongings. That is, the right is coextensive with however many things a person happens to have.

However, there is an interesting difference in the language of the warrant clause: a warrant must describe the “place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Why does the search warrant provision use the singular, while the arrest warrant provision use the plural? This could suggest a rule against multiple location search warrants, a rule that has never existed as far as I know.

What makes it even odder is that earlier state constitutions all referred to “places,” so this is not just a case of cut-and-past. And while the matter of a missing letter may seem to be the kind of thing that would escape the drafters’ notice, the Framers made similarly detailed one-letter edits to the text of the Fourth Amendment.

I found one case involving a (failed) challenge to multiple location warrants based on the “place” language – in the Indiana Constitution’s search provision, which uses the singular across the board, and thus does not present the question so sharply. See Brown v. State, 239 Ind. 358, 363 (Ind. 1959). Other state constitutional provisions also tweak the Fourth Amendment for consistency between singular and plural. See, e.g., Nevada Const. art. 1, § 18.

Some may think this illustrates the limits of textualism, though it would seem the difference between one warrant for multiple locations and multiple warrants for separate locations does litte more than increase judicial signatures. A more substantial question would be about using suspicion about one location to “spill over” to another.

Does anyone know the origins of the mysterious singular?

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