308 U.S. 321 (1939), 42, Weiss v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 42
Citation:308 U.S. 321, 60 S.Ct. 269, 84 L.Ed. 298
Party Name:Weiss v. United States
Case Date:December 11, 1939
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 321

308 U.S. 321 (1939)

60 S.Ct. 269, 84 L.Ed. 298



United States

No. 42

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 11, 1939

Argued November 13, 14, 1939




1. The provision of § 605 of the Communications Act of 1934, that

no person not being authorized by the sender shall intercept any communication and divulge or publish the existence, contents, substance, purport, effect, or meaning of such intercepted communication to any person,

applies to intrastate as well as to interstate and foreign communications (over wires used for both kinds), and bars admission in trials in the federal courts of evidence obtained by interception of such intrastate telephone communications. P. 329.

2. As Congress has power, when necessary for the protection of interstate commerce, to regulate intrastate transactions, there is no constitutional requirement that the scope of the statute be limited so as to exclude intrastate communications. P. 327.

3. The broad and inclusive language of the second clause of § 605, quoted supra, is not to be limited by construction so as to exclude intrastate communications from the protection against interception and divulgence. P. 329.

4. Held: Evidence of intercepted intrastate telephone communications which had been recorded by stenograph and phonograph was inadmissible in a trial in the federal court, and it was prejudicial error for the court to admit such evidence either by permitting the parties to the telephone conversation, who had turned state's evidence, to read the stenographic transcript, or by allowing the prosecutor to put the stenographic transcripts and phonograph records in evidence upon identification by the parties to the conversation. The divulgence of the communications under the circumstances here was not "authorized by the sender" within the meaning of § 605. Pp. 329, 331.

103 F.2d 348 reversed.

Certiorari, 307 U.S. 621, to review the affirmance of convictions and sentences of the petitioners upon indictments for using the mails to defraud and for conspiracy.

Page 324

ROBERTS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioners were indicted, with five others, in the District Court for the Southern District of New York for using the mails to defraud and for conspiracy so to use them.1 The alleged scheme was to cheat insurance companies by inducing them to pay false claims for disability, health, and accident benefits to three of the defendants, Nelson, Berger, and Spitz. These three pleaded guilty and testified for the Government. Three defendants who were physicians -- Messman, Goldstein, and Krupp -- were alleged to have assisted by furnishing policyholders false medical certificates and instructing them how to simulate illness. Messman pleaded guilty and testified for the Government. The other two stood trial. Two lawyers, Joseph J. Weiss, and Alfred L. Weiss, and an investigator, Gross, were charged with having furthered the claims knowing them to be false. Alfred L. Weiss was granted a severance; Joseph J. Weiss and Gross stood trial. Each of the petitioners was convicted and sentenced. The judgments were affirmed by the Circuit Court of Appeals.2

The conspiracy and scheme charged covered a period extending from January 15, 1934, to July 30, 1937, the date of the indictment. The principal issue of fact was whether the petitioners participated in making false claims with guilty knowledge. Over objection and exception,

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the trial judge admitted evidence of seventy-six intercepted telephone communications.

For months prior to the finding of the indictment, telephone messages over the wires leading into the offices of Weiss and Messman in New York City were intercepted. The wires were tapped by a policeman acting under instructions of a United States Post Office Inspector. The intercepted messages were taken stenographically, and were also simultaneously recorded on phonograph discs by employees of a detective agency acting under the same instructions. Each night, the records and stenographic transcripts of communications intercepted during the day were delivered to the United States Attorney or his representative. Interstate calls were made from Weiss' office, and the tapped wires were the conduits of both interstate and intrastate communications. Every call, whether interstate or intrastate, to or from Weiss' office, was intercepted and recorded.

It appeared at the trial that one of the defendants who pleaded guilty had been confronted with the phonographic records and had then decided to plead guilty and become a witness for the Government. Others who had been informed of the Government's possession of the records did likewise. In the preparation for trial, one of the defendants, who was to testify for the prosecution, held a typed copy of the stenographic transcript of a telephone conversation in which he had participated while a phonographic record of the conversation was played to him. He corrected the typed manuscript to make it conform to the words emitted from the phonograph. He then marked the phonographic record and the script for identification.

The Government's procedure at the trial in proving the communications was to call as a witness one of the defendants who had pleaded guilty, and to hand him a transcript

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he had marked for identification. After he had testified that, on a given [60 S.Ct. 271] date, he held a telephone conversation with one of the other defendants, he was asked whether he could repeat the conversation verbatim. Upon his stating that he could not do so without the use of the typed transcript, he was permitted to read it to the jury. Subsequently the Government offered the identified phonograph records and typewritten transcripts in evidence, and they were admitted. Certain of the records were played to the jury while each juryman held a copy of the typewritten transcript of the conversation. All of the communications in question are conceded to have been intrastate, save one which, however, was not shown to have been interstate.

The petitioners' objections to the admission of this evidence were that it would violate § 605 of the Federal Communications Act of 1934;3 would violate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the Federal Constitution, and would be in the teeth of § 1423, subdivision 6, of the Penal Law of the New York,4 making wire tapping a crime.

Because of conflict of decision in the Circuit Courts of Appeal,5 we granted certiorari, limited to the "question whether the trial court properly received in evidence intercepted telephone communications."6

In Nardone v. United States, 302 U.S. 379, it was decided that §...

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