256 U.S. 465 (1921), 66, Burdeau v. McDowell

Docket Nº:No. 66
Citation:256 U.S. 465, 41 S.Ct. 574, 65 L.Ed. 1048
Party Name:Burdeau v. McDowell
Case Date:June 01, 1921
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 465

256 U.S. 465 (1921)

41 S.Ct. 574, 65 L.Ed. 1048




No. 66

United States Supreme Court

June 1, 1921

Argued April 11, 12, 1921




1. The United States may retain for use as evidence in the criminal prosecution of their owner incriminating documents which are turned over to it by private individuals who procured them, without the participation or knowledge of any government official, through a wrongful search of the owner's private desk and papers in an office. P. 474.

2. The provision of the Fourth Amendment forbidding unreasonable searches and seizures refers to governmental action; the Fifth Amendment secures the citizen from compulsory testimony against himself by protecting him from extorted confessions and examinations in court proceedings by compulsory methods. P. 475.


Appeal from an order of the district court requiring that certain books and papers be impounded with the clerk and ultimately returned to the appellee, and enjoining officers of the Department of Justice from using them, or evidence derived through them, in criminal proceedings against him. The facts are stated in the opinion, post 470.

Page 470

DAY, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DAY delivered the opinion of the Court.

J. C. McDowell, hereinafter called the petitioner, filed a petition in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania asking for an order for the return to him of certain books, papers, memoranda, correspondence and other data in the possession of Joseph A. Burdeau, appellant herein, Special Assistant to the Attorney General of the United States.

In the petition, it is stated that Burdeau and his associates intended to present to the grand jury in and for the Western District of Pennsylvania a charge against petitioner of an alleged violation of § 215 of the Criminal Code of the United States for the fraudulent use of the mails; that it was the intention of Burdeau and his associates, including certain post office inspectors cooperating with him, to present to the grand jury certain private books, papers, memoranda, etc., which were the private property of the petitioner; that the papers had been in the possession and exclusive control of the petitioner in the Farmers' Bank Building in Pittsburgh. It is alleged that, during the spring and summer of 1920, these papers were unlawfully seized and stolen from petitioner by certain persons participating in and furthering the proposed investigation so to be made by the grand jury, under the direction and control of Burdeau as special assistant to the Attorney General, and that such books, papers, memoranda, etc., were being held in the possession and control of Burdeau and his assistants; that, in the taking of the personal private books and papers, the person who purloined and stole the same drilled the petitioner's private safes, broke the locks upon his private

Page 471

desk, and broke into and abstracted from the files in his offices his private papers; that the possession of the books, papers, etc., by Burdeau and his assistants was unlawful and in violation of the legal and constitutional rights of the petitioner. It is charged that the presentation to the grand jury of the same, or any secondary or other evidence secured through or by them, would work a deprivation of petitioner's constitutional rights secured to him by the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

An answer was filed claiming the right to hold and use the papers. A hearing was had before the district judge, who made an order requiring the delivery of the papers to the clerk of the court, together with all copies, memoranda and data taken therefrom, which the court found had been stolen from the offices of the petitioner at rooms numbered 1320 and 1321 in the Farmers' Bank Building in the City of Pittsburgh. The order further provided that, upon delivery of the books, papers, etc., to the clerk of the court, the same should be sealed and impounded for the period of ten days, at the end of which period they should be delivered to the petitioner or his attorney unless an appeal were taken from the order of the court, in which event the books, papers, etc., should be impounded until the determination of the appeal. An order was made restraining Burdeau, Special Assistant Attorney General, the Department of Justice, its officers and agents, and the United States Attorney from presenting to the United States commissioner, the grand jury or any official tribunal, any of the books, papers, [41 S.Ct. 575] memoranda, letters, copies of letters correspondence, etc., or any evidence of any nature whatsoever secured by or coming into their possession as a result of the knowledge obtained from the inspection of such books, papers, memoranda, etc.,

In his opinion, the district judge stated that it was the

Page 472

intention of the Department of Justice, through Burdeau and his assistants, to present the books, papers, etc., to the grand jury with a view to having the petitioner indicted for the alleged violation of § 215 of the Criminal Code of the United States, and the court held that the evidence offered by the petitioner showed that the papers had been stolen from him, and that he was entitled to the return of the same. In this connection, the district...

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