232 U.S. 383 (1914), 461, Weeks v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 461
Citation:232 U.S. 383, 34 S.Ct. 341, 58 L.Ed. 652
Party Name:Weeks v. United States
Case Date:February 24, 1914
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 383

232 U.S. 383 (1914)

34 S.Ct. 341, 58 L.Ed. 652



United States

No. 461

United States Supreme Court

February 24, 1914

Argued December 2, 3, 1913




Under the Fourth Amendment, Federal courts and officers are under such limitations and restraints in the exercise of their power and authority as to forever secure the people, their persons, houses, papers and effects against all unreasonable searches and seizures under the guise of law.

The protection of the Fourth Amendment reaches all alike, whether accused of crime or not; and the duty of giving it force and effect is obligatory on all entrusted with the enforcement of Federal laws.

The tendency of those executing Federal criminal laws to obtain convictions by means of unlawful seizures and enforced confessions in violation of Federal rights is not to be sanctioned by the courts which are charged with the support of constitutional rights.

The Federal courts cannot, as against a seasonable application for their return, in a criminal prosecution, retain for the purposes of evidence against the accused his letters and correspondence seized in his house during his absence and without his authority by a United States marshal holding no warrant for his arrest or for the search of his premises.

While the efforts of courts and their officials to bring the guilty to punishment are praiseworthy, they are not to be aided by sacrificing the great fundamental rights secured by the Constitution.

While an incidental seizure of incriminating papers, made in the execution of a legal warrant, and their use as evidence, may be justified, and a collateral issue will not be raised to ascertain the source of competent evidence, Adams v. New York, 192 U.S. 585, that rule does not justify the retention of letters seized in violation of the protection given by the Fourth Amendment where an application in the cause for their return has been made by the accused before trial.

The court has power to deal with papers and documents in the possession of the District Attorney and other officers of the court and to direct their return to the accused if wrongfully seized.

Where letters and papers of the accused were taken from his premises by an official of the United States, acting under color of office but

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without any search warrant and in violation of the constitutional rights of accused under the Fourth Amendment, and a seasonable application for return of the letters and papers has been refused and they are used in evidence over his objection, prejudicial error is committed, and the judgment should be reversed.

The Fourth Amendment is not directed to individual misconduct of state officers. Its limitations reach the Federal Government and its agencies. Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616.

The facts, which involve the validity under the Fourth Amendment of a verdict and sentence and the extent to which the private papers of the accused taken without search warrant can be used as evidence against him, are stated in the opinion.

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DAY, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DAY delivered the opinion of the court:

An indictment was returned against the plaintiff in error, defendant below, and herein so designated, in the district court of the United States for the western district of Missouri, containing nine counts. The seventh count, upon which a conviction was had, charged the use of the mails for the purpose of transporting certain coupons or tickets representing chances or shares in a lottery or gift enterprise, in violation of § 213 of the Criminal Code. Sentence of fine and imprisonment was imposed. This writ of error is to review that judgment.

The defendant was arrested by a police officer, so far as the record shows, without warrant, at the Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was employed by an express company. Other police officers had gone to the house of the defendant, and being told by a neighbor where the key was kept, found it and entered the house. They searched the defendant's room and took possession of various papers and articles found there, which were afterwards turned over to the United States marshal. Later in the same day, police officers returned with the marshal, who thought he might find additional evidence and, being admitted by someone in the house, probably a boarder, in response to a rap, the marshal searched the defendant's room and carried away certain letters and envelops found in the drawer of a chiffonier. Neither the marshal nor the police officer had a search warrant.

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The defendant filed in the cause before the time for trial the following petition:

Petition to Return Private Papers, Books, and Other Property.

Now comes defendant and states that he is a citizen and resident of Kansas City, Missouri, and that he resides, owns, and occupies a home at 1834 Penn street in said city:

That, on the 21st day of December, 1911, while plaintiff was absent at his daily vocation, certain officers of the government, whose names are to plaintiff unknown, unlawfully and without warrant or authority so to do, broke open the door to plaintiff's said home and seized all of his books, letters, money, papers, notes, evidences of indebtedness, stock, certificates, insurance policies, deeds, abstracts, and other muniments of title, bonds, candies, clothes, and other property in said home, and this in violation of §§ 11 and 23 to the Constitution of Missouri, and of the 4th and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States;

That the district attorney, marshal, and clerk of the United States court for the western district of Missouri took the above-described property so seized into their possession, and have failed and refused to return to defendant portion of same, to-wit:

One (1) leather grip, value about $7; one (1) tin box valued at $3; one (1) Pettis county, Missouri, bond, value $500; three (3) mining stock certificates which defendant is unable to more particularly describe, valued at $12,000; and certain stock certificates in addition thereto, issued by the San Domingo Mining, Loan, & Investment Company; about $75 in currency; one (1) newspaper published about 1790, an heirloom; and certain other property which plaintiff is now unable to describe.

That said property is being unlawfully and improperly

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held by said district attorney, marshal, and clerk, in violation of defendant's rights under the Constitution of the United States and the state of Missouri.

That said district attorney purposes to use said books, letters, papers, certificates of stock, etc., at the trial of the above-entitled cause, and that, by reason thereof and of the facts above set forth, defendant's rights under the amendments aforesaid to the Constitutions of Missouri and the United States have been and will be violated unless the court order the return prayed for;

Wherefore, defendant prays that said district attorney, marshal, and clerk be notified, and that the court direct and order said district attorney, marshal, and clerk, to return said property to said defendant.

Upon consideration of the petition, the court entered in the cause an order directing the return of such property as was not pertinent to the charge against the defendant, but denied the petition as to pertinent matter, reserving the right to pass upon the pertinency at a later time. In obedience to the order, the district attorney returned part of the property taken and retained the remainder, concluding a list of the latter with the statement that

all of which last above described property is to be used in evidence in the trial of the [34 S.Ct. 343] above-entitled cause, and pertains to the alleged sale of lottery tickets of the company above named.

After the jury had been sworn and before any evidence had been given, the defendant again urged his petition for the return of his property, which was denied by the court. Upon the introduction of such papers during the trial, the defendant objected on the ground that the papers had been obtained without a search warrant, and by breaking open his home, in violation of the 4th and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, which objection was overruled by the court. Among the papers retained and put in evidence were a number of

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lottery tickets and statements with reference to the lottery, taken at the first visit of the police to the defendant's room, and a number of letters written to the defendant in respect to the lottery, taken by the marshal upon his search of defendant's room.

The defendant assigns error, among other things, in the court's refusal to grant his petition for the return of his property, and in permitting the papers to be used at the trial.

It is thus apparent that the question presented involves the determination of the duty of the court with reference to the motion made by the defendant for the return of certain letters, as well as other papers, taken from his room by the United States marshal, who, without authority of process, if any such could have been legally issued, visited the room of the defendant for the declared purpose of obtaining additional testimony to support the charge against the accused, and, having gained admission to the house, took from the drawer of a chiffonier there found certain letters written to the defendant, tending to show his guilt. These letters were placed in the control of the district attorney, and were subsequently produced by him and offered in evidence against the accused at the trial. The defendant contends that such appropriation of his private correspondence was in violation of rights secured to him by the 4th and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. We...

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