On May 23, 1957, three police officers arrived at a house in Cleveland and demanded to enter. They wanted to question a man about a recent bombing and believed he was hiding inside. A woman who lived there, Dollree Mapp, refused to admit them.

It was a small gesture of defiance that led to a landmark United States Supreme Court ruling on the limits of police power.

Ms. Mapp told the officers that she wanted to see a search warrant. They did not produce one. A few hours later, more officers arrived and forced their way into the house. Ms. Mapp called her lawyer and again asked to see a warrant. When one officer held up a piece of paper that he said was a warrant, Ms. Mapp snatched it and stuffed it into her blouse. The officer reached inside her clothing and snatched it back.

The officers handcuffed Ms. Mapp — they called her “belligerent” — and then searched her bedroom, where they paged through a photo album and personal papers. They also searched her young daughter’s room, the kitchen, a dining area and the basement.

They did not find the man they were looking for, but they did find what they said were sexually explicit materials — books and drawings that Ms. Mapp said had belonged to a previous boarder — and they arrested Ms. Mapp.

Four years later, after Ms. Mapp had been sentenced to prison on obscenity charges and after her conviction had been upheld on appeal, the Supreme Court took up the case, ostensibly because of questions it raised about obscenity and the First Amendment.

But when the justices ruled, in June 1961, their decision dwelled, with far more significant consequences, on the role of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unlawful search and seizure. Prosecutors had never produced the supposed warrant brandished by the Cleveland police or proved that it had existed.

The court ruled, 6 to 3, that Ms. Mapp’s conviction should be thrown out, and that all state courts must suppress evidence gathered through police misconduct in certain kinds of cases.

Even though Ms. Mapp’s name is etched in legal history, she had lived quietly in recent years, and besides a brief notice on a funeral home website, it took more than a month for her death to be reported. She was believed to be 90 or 91 when she died on Oct. 31, in or near Conyers, Ga.

Colorful, sometimes brash, Ms. Mapp was married for a time to Jimmy Bivins, a top-ranked fighter who died in 2012. She was later engaged to Archie Moore, a light-heavyweight champion, whom she sued in 1956 for $750,000, claiming he had assaulted her and had backed out of their marriage plans. (He died in 1998.) The bombing that officers were investigating in 1957 had been at the home of Don King, who would go on to become a famous boxing promoter. Ms. Mapp’s encounter with the police that day would not be her last run-in with the law.

Mapp v. Ohio may not ring as familiar as other cases involving civil rights and civil liberties, but it became a legal touchstone that continues to shape cases and stir debate.

“The state, by admitting evidence unlawfully seized, serves to encourage disobedience to the federal Constitution which it is bound to uphold,” Justice Tom C. Clark wrote in the majority opinion.

Justice Clark wrote that evidence gathered illegally had to be excluded. Other measures to address such conduct had proved “worthless and futile.”

Court decisions in the past quarter-century have made exceptions to the exclusionary rule in certain cases when evidence was gathered improperly — for example, if a law enforcement agency appears to have made the errors in good faith when it followed incorrect legal guidance or relied on incorrect information provided by another agency.

The current chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr., was a lawyer in the Reagan administration in the 1980s and helped it attack the exclusionary rule through litigation, proposed legislation and other means. In 2009, he wrote the majority opinion in Herring v. United States, a 5-to-4 decision that upheld the conviction of Bennie D. Herring after a search led to his arrest on drug and weapons charges based on false information that he was the subject of a warrant.

Some of the rule’s supporters worry that it could be significantly weakened or abolished under the current court. Jeffrey Fisher, a professor at Stanford Law School, said the issue would most likely go before the high court again as Herring is interpreted by lower courts.

“Some are reading Herring broadly,” Mr. Fisher said, “and some narrowly.”

Dollree Mapp was born in 1923 or 1924, according to census records, one of seven children of Samuel and Mary Mapp. She grew up in Forest, Miss. Her first name was spelled several ways in early records, and she was sometimes called Dolly. As an adult, Ms. Mapp gave numerous dates for her birth; public records show a wide range.

Information about her survivors was not immediately available. Her death was confirmed by the funeral home in Conyers that handled her services.

In 1968, Ms. Mapp moved from Cleveland to Queens. Two years later she was charged with possession of narcotics. Convicted in 1971 with a co-defendant, Alan Lyons, she pursued a series of appeals, claiming that the search warrant used in her arrest had been wrongly issued and that the police had targeted her because of her role in Mapp v. Ohio.

The drugs seized in the case were found at an apartment that Mr. Lyons apparently rented from Ms. Mapp. She lived several miles away. The police searched her home and found rent receipts that prosecutors argued established her as having aided and abetted Mr. Lyons. The officer who had applied for the warrant to search Ms. Mapp’s home was later dismissed from the police force after he was determined to have accepted about $3,500 from a narcotics dealer.

Ms. Mapp’s conviction was upheld, and she served time in the New York State Correctional Institution at Bedford Hills. On Dec. 31, 1980, Gov. Hugh Carey commuted her sentence, making her immediately eligible for parole.

Article courtesy of the New York Times: