The Third Amendment was passed along with nine others that together became known as the Bill of Rights in 1791. There was a huge concern that without written rights, the federal government would obtain too much power and become oppressive. During British Rule, civilians living in the colonies were required, under the Quartering Act of 1765, to house and provide basic necessities for British soldiers. Once the United States declared independence, the founders drafted, after much deliberation, the Third Amendment to assert citizens’ exemption from such a burden.
“No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
What Does It Mean?
The Third Amendment prohibits soldiers from being forcibly housed in a civilian’s residence during peacetime. During wartime, however, the government retains the right to authorize such action with Congressional approval. The United States government has not quartered soldiers in private homes since the end of the Civil War.
More broadly, the Third Amendment suggests that citizens maintain privileged ownership of private property that may not be subject to government interference. The Third Amendment has some broader implications for government or police entrance into the home. The government needs consent to even enter a citizen’s property and certainly needs consent to force soldiers into it.
Major Court Cases
The Third Amendment is infrequently addressed by the Supreme Court or legal scholars. It was specifically mentioned for one of the first times in a case called Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company v. Sawyer in 1952. The petitioner was a steel company that, after the Korean war, was seized and nationalized by the United States government under President Truman. The Court held in that case that the President did not have the constitutional right to seize private property and any efforts to nationalize private industries must be mandated by Congress. Justice Jackson, concurring with the opinion of the Court, argued that the Third Amendment demonstrates the right to private property without intervention from the federal government. As with the Third Amendment, the Court held that the President may only seize private property in times of war and with Congressional approval. Another landmark court case, Griswold v. Connecticut of 1956, which held that married couples could freely purchase contraception, referenced the Third Amendment for its implications about privacy in association with the home.
One of the only cases to date that directly involved the Third Amendment was Engblom v. Carey, a 2nd circuit decision from 1982. In that case, New York State correction officers went on strike in 1979 and were subsequently replaced by national guardsmen. Given that correction officers rely on their employment for housing, they were evicted from their houses and replaced by the national guardsmen. The court ruled that the national guardsman qualified as soldiers and that the Amendment could be extended beyond direct property owner rights. Thus, the strikers were given housing immunity unless they committed some illegal act.
The Third Amendment is one of the few amendments that holds little controversy in modern society due to the specificity of the text, the rare conditions for when it may be deemed necessary, and general inapplicability to other constitutional scenarios. In the entire history of the US, the possibility of the federal government needing to outsource soldiers’ housing has rarely come up. Nonetheless, there seems to be unilateral agreement in favor of the Third Amendment.
As with Griswold v. Connecticut, the Third Amendment is often used to defend citizens' claims to privacy and their home. Pro-choice proponents often rely on the Third Amendment’s assertion of privacy in the home to defend the right to an abortion. Since the right to privacy is not explicitly outlined in the Constitution, proponents of abortion rights often argue that freedom from government interference into the private family home is secured by the Third Amendment.
While the original language of the Third Amendment specified the government’s restriction from quartering soldiers in the home, the same argument has been applied to technology-based spying into the home. Individuals concerned with their private life and activity recognize technology-based spying as the modern equivalent to quartering soldiers in the home. The age of modern technology has broken conventional notions of the private life since the government and other corporations can regularly access our internet and phone activity. However, the Third Amendment can be used to defend the individual’s right from such governmental interference. Data theft and access to private information remain a hot-button issue for many Americans who worry about their long-term privacy. In that same vein, some concern has arisen around police raids and potential police occupation of private homes to assist in nearby investigations. While these concerns have validity, police officers are distinguished from military officers and unlikely to receive this special status.
While there is little case law on the Third Amendment, the broader implications about private citizens’ rights in their homes and protection from government interference remain pertinent. Issues surrounding privacy laws and freedom from government intrusion continue to be a priority for Americans. Thus, while the specifics of the Third Amendment may not always appear in newspaper headlines, legal scholarship, or Supreme Court cases, the spirit of the Third Amendment is still very much with us.