Inaugural McCurdy Fellow Finds Research on Cars, Fourth Amendment Her Vehicle to UVA Law Mentoring Opportunity

Sarah Seo

Sarah Seo, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University, will be in residency at UVA Law starting this summer through a new fellowship opportunity.

April 8, 2015

As the inaugural Charles W. McCurdy Legal History Fellow, Sarah Seo is exploring police searches of automobiles and the implications for individual freedom. Starting this summer, the legal historian will hone her dissertation on the subject while participating in a yearlong residency at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Seo's appointment, which is sponsored by the Law School, the UVA History Department and the Miller Center, comes with a $32,000 stipend, and is the latest addition to the Miller Center National Fellowship Program, which will announce its complete roster of new history fellows this month.

Seo, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University, said the vast majority of court cases involving the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure by authorities, don't involve residences. That's because, "When most people encounter the police, they usually encounter them in their cars," she said.

Fourth Amendment complaints have proliferated in association with cars over the past century, not just because of the sheer number of vehicles on the road, but because of the nature of vehicle use, which involves both private and public rights. Over time, federal courts began to view car searches through the lens of public safety, and a body of law developed.

"If you look at cultural history, the automobile represents freedom, but when you look at legal history, it's one of the most regulated aspects of our lives," Seo said.

Rather than maintaining the substantive right of an individual to be free from policing in private spaces, the courts have refined procedural rights to protect people against unlawful policing, Seo said. In her fellowship proposal, she points to the frequency by which the U.S. Supreme Court hears and interprets the law of vehicle searches. The court's most recent opinions, that police who act based on anonymous tips or misunderstandings of the law don't necessarily violate an individual's rights, are examples of the civil liberty debates her dissertation will inform.

Seo holds a J.D. from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in history from Princeton. She became interested in the legal history of the Fourth Amendment while clerking for district and circuit court judges in New York, where she routinely saw the legal process in the war on drugs play out.

"A lot of the criminal cases involved drug offenses, and that's when I realized a large number of Fourth Amendment cases involved car searches," she said. "This points to a bigger question in American law. What does it mean to live in a free society if that society relies on the police?"

Seo, who has already published and given presentations on cars and the Constitution, said she looks forward to further polishing her dissertation with the help of esteemed academics. Stanford law professor David Sklansky, an expert in policing, will serve as Seo's "dream mentor," a feature of the fellowship that provides mentoring from a requested academic anywhere in the world. Her UVA Law advisers will include Risa Goluboff, the award-winning author of "The Lost Promise of Civil Rights," and Ted White, the author of 15 books and a one-time Pulitzer Prize finalist.

"Sarah is the ideal inaugural McCurdy Fellow: She has a stellar academic record, an innovative and provocative project, and a genuine excitement about exploring her work with scholars and students across a wide range of disciplines," Goluboff said.

White said Seo will contribute substantially to the Law School's academic discourse, and added that the choice of such a high-caliber historian is befitting of the fellowship's namesake. Charles McCurdy is a UVA professor of history and law who has directed or advised more than 200 doctoral dissertations, master's theses and undergraduate theses during his 40-year career.

"We created the fellowship to honor Chuck McCurdy's outstanding scholarly career and his incomparable mentoring of undergraduate, graduate and law students, and we believe that in Sarah's appointment we have an addition to our scholarly community worthy of Chuck's legacy," White said.

At Columbia, Seo was a Harlan Fiske Stone scholar and senior editor of the Columbia Law Review. Her judicial clerkships were with Judge Daniel Chin on the Southern District of New York and Judge Reena Raggi on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Seo has published four articles in law journals, two of them peer-reviewed, since graduating from law school in 2007.

The McCurdy Fellowship is supported by the Law School, the Corcoran Department of History and the Miller Center, whose fellowship program had launched the careers of scholars who employ history to shed light on American life and global affairs.

"Since founding the National Fellowship Program 15 years ago, I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of talented fellows, and Sarah Seo is one of the most impressive candidates I have seen so far," said Brian Balogh, the Compton Professor at the Miller Center and the Corcoran Department of History. "Like many of the fellows who have gone on to forge impressive scholarly careers, Sarah has already mastered a number of fields. Beyond a mastery of legal history, Sarah's work sheds light on the history of privacy and the history of technology. Her dissertation demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of changing social relations in 20th-century America."


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