277 U.S. 438 (1928), Olmstead v. United States

Citation:277 U.S. 438, 48 S.Ct. 564, 72 L.Ed. 944
Party Name:Olmstead v. United States
Case Date:June 04, 1928
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 438

277 U.S. 438 (1928)

48 S.Ct. 564, 72 L.Ed. 944

Olmstead

v.

United States

United States Supreme Court

June 4, 1928

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. Use in evidence in a criminal trial in a federal court of an incriminating telephone conversation voluntarily conducted by the accused and secretly overheard from a tapped wire by a government officer does not compel the accused to be a witness against himself in violation of the Fifth Amendment. P. 462.

2. Evidence of a conspiracy to violate the Prohibition Act was obtained by government officers by secretly tapping the lines of a telephone company connected with the chief office and some of the residences of the conspirators, and thus clandestinely overhearing and recording their telephonic conversations concerning the conspiracy and in aid of its execution. The tapping connections were made in the basement of a large office building and on public streets, and no trespass was committed upon any property of the defendants. Held, that the obtaining of the evidence and its use at the trial did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 457-466.

3. The principle of liberal construction applied to the Amendment to effect its purpose in the interest of liberty will not justify enlarging it beyond the possible practical meaning of "persons, houses, papers, and effects," or so applying "searches and seizures" as to forbid hearing or sight. P. 465.

4. The policy of protecting the secrecy of telephone messages by making them, when intercepted, inadmissible as evidence in federal criminal trials may be adopted by Congress through legislation, but it is not for the courts to adopt it by attributing an enlarged and unusual meaning to the Fourth Amendment. P. 465.

5. A provision in an order granting certiorari limiting the review to a single specific question does not deprive the Court of jurisdiction to decide other questions presented by the record. P. 466.

6. The common law of evidence having prevailed in the State of Washington since a time antedating her transformation from a

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Territory to a State, those rule apply in the trials of criminal cases in the federal courts sitting in that State. P. 466.

7. Under the common law, the admissibility of evidence is not affected by the fact of its having been obtained illegally. P. 467.

8. The rule excluding from the federal Courts evidence of crime procured by government officers by methods forbidden by the Fourth and Fifth Amendments is an exception to the common law rule. Id.

9. Without the sanction of an Act of Congress, federal courts have no discretion to exclude evidence, the admission of which is not unconstitutional, because it was unethically procured. P. 468.

10. The statute of Washington, adopted in 1909, making the interception of telephone messages a misdemeanor cannot affect the rules of evidence applicable in federal courts in criminal cases. Id.

19 F. (2d) 842, 848, 850, affirmed.

CERTIORARI, 276 U.S. 609, to judgments of the Circuit Court of Appeals affirming convictions of conspiracy to violate the Prohibition Act. See 5 F.2d 712; 7 F.2d 756, 760. The order granting certiorari confined the hearing to the question whether the use in evidence of private telephone conversations, intercepted by means of wiretapping, violated the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

Page 455

TAFT, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE TAFT delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases are here by certiorari from the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. 19 F.2d 842 and 850. The petition in No. 493 was filed August 30, 1927; in Nos. 532 and 533, September [48 S.Ct. 565] 9, 1927. They were granted with the distinct limitation that the hearing should be confined to the single question whether the use of evidence of private telephone conversations between the defendants and others, intercepted by means of wiretapping amounted to a violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

The petitioners were convicted in the District Court for the Western District of Washington of a conspiracy to violate the National Prohibition Act by unlawfully possessing, transporting and importing intoxicating liquors and maintaining nuisances, and by selling intoxicating liquors. Seventy-two others in addition to the petitioners were indicted. Some were not apprehended, some were acquitted, and others pleaded guilty.

The evidence in the records discloses a conspiracy of amazing magnitude to import, possess and sell liquor unlawfully.

Page 456

It involved the employment of not less than fifty persons, of two seagoing vessels for the transportation of liquor to British Columbia, of smaller vessels for coastwise transportation to the State of Washington, the purchase and use of a ranch beyond the suburban limits of Seattle, with a large underground cache for storage and a number of smaller caches in that city, the maintenance of a central office manned with operators, the employment of executives, salesmen, deliverymen, dispatchers, scouts, bookkeepers, collectors and an attorney. In a bad month, sales amounted to $176,000; the aggregate for a year must have exceeded two millions of dollars.

Olmstead was the leading conspirator and the general manager of the business. He made a contribution of $10,000 to the capital; eleven others contributed $1,000 each. The profits were divided one-half to Olmstead and the remainder to the other eleven. Of the several offices in Seattle, the chief one was in a large office building. In this there were three telephones on three different lines. There were telephones in an office of the manager in his own home, at the homes of his associates, and at other places in the city. Communication was had frequently with Vancouver, British Columbia. Times were fixed for the deliveries of the "stuff," to places along Puget Sound near Seattle, and from there the liquor was removed and deposited in the caches already referred to

One of the chief men was always on duty at the main office to receive orders by telephones and to direct their filling by a corps of men stationed in another room -- the " bull pen." The call numbers of the telephones were given to those known to be likely customers. At times, the sales amounted to 200 cases of liquor per day.

The information which led to the discovery of the conspiracy and its nature and extent was largely obtained by intercepting messages on the telephones of the conspirators by four federal prohibition officers. Small

Page 457

wires were inserted along the ordinary telephone wires from the residences of four of the petitioners and those leading from the chief office. The insertions were made without trespass upon any property of the defendants. They were made in the basement of the large office building. The taps from house lines were made in the streets near the houses.

The gathering of evidence continued for many months. Conversations of the conspirators, of which refreshing stenographic notes were currently made, were testified to by the government witnesses. They revealed the large business transactions of the partners and their subordinates. Men at the wires heard the orders given for liquor by customers and the acceptances; they became auditors of the conversations between the partners. All this disclosed the conspiracy charged in the indictment. Many of the intercepted conversations were not merely reports, but parts of the criminal acts. The evidence also disclosed the difficulties to which the conspirators were subjected, the reported news of the capture of vessels, the arrest of their men and the seizure of cases of liquor in garages and other places. It showed the dealing by Olmstead, the chief conspirator, with members of the Seattle police, the messages to them which secured the release of arrested members of the conspiracy, and also direct promises to officers of payments as soon as opportunity offered.

The Fourth Amendment provides --

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.

And the Fifth: "No person . . . shall be compelled, in any criminal case, to be a witness against himself."

Page 458

It will be helpful to consider the chief cases in this Court which bear upon the construction of these Amendments.

Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, was an information filed by the District Attorney in the federal court in a cause of seizure and forfeiture against thirty-five cases of plate glass, which charged that the owner and importer, with intent to defraud the revenue, made an entry of the imported merchandise by means of a fraudulent or false invoice. It became important to show the quantity and value of glass contained in twenty-nine cases previously imported. The fifth section of the Act of June 22, 1874, provided that, in cases not criminal under the revenue laws, the United States Attorney, whenever he thought an invoice belonging [48 S.Ct. 566] to the defendant would tend to prove any allegation made by the United States, might, by a written motion describing the invoice and setting forth the allegation which he expected to prove, secure a notice from the court to the defendant to produce the invoice, and, if the defendant refused to produce it, the allegations stated in the motion should be taken as confessed, but if produced, the United States Attorney should be permitted, under the direction of the court, to make an examination of the invoice, and might offer the same in...

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