392 U.S. 378 (1968), 174, Lee v. Florida

Docket Nº:No. 174
Citation:392 U.S. 378, 88 S.Ct. 2096, 20 L.Ed.2d 1166
Party Name:Lee v. Florida
Case Date:June 17, 1968
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 378

392 U.S. 378 (1968)

88 S.Ct. 2096, 20 L.Ed.2d 1166




No. 174

United States Supreme Court

June 17, 1968

Argued May 2, 1968




A four-party telephone line was installed in petitioner Lee's house, and, shortly thereafter, by direction of the Orlando, Florida, police, a telephone in a neighboring house was connected to the same party line. The police attached equipment which permitted them to hear and record all conversations on the party line without lifting the telephone receiver. Recordings of conversations were introduced, over objection, at petitioners' trial for violation of state lottery laws. Petitioners were convicted, and the state appellate court affirmed, saying

that there were no state or federal statutes applicable in Florida which would make wiretapping illegal and inadmissible in evidence. . . .


1. The conduct of the Orlando police clearly amounted to interception of petitioners' communications within the meaning of § 605 of the Federal Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits the interception and divulgence (conceded here) of any communication without the sender's authorization. Pp. 380-382.

2. The recordings of the illegally intercepted conversations were not admissible in evidence in the Florida courts in view of the express federal prohibition against divulgence of recordings so procured. Schwartz v. Texas, 344 U.S. 199, overruled. Pp. 382-387.

191 So.2d 84, reversed.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The three petitioners were convicted in a Florida trial court for violating the state lottery laws. Their convictions

Page 379

were affirmed by a Florida district court of appeal,1 and the Supreme Court of Florida denied further review. We granted certiorari to consider the application of § 605 of the Federal Communications Act of 1934, 48 Stat. 1103, 47 U.S.C. § 60a, to the circumstances of this case.2 That statute provides:

[N]o person not being authorized by the sender shall intercept any communication and divulge . . . the existence, contents, substance, purport, effect, or meaning of such intercepted communication to [88 S.Ct. 2098] any person. . . .

In the summer of 1963, petitioner Lee ordered the installation of a private telephone in the house where he lived near Orlando, Florida. The local telephone company informed him that no private lines were available, and he was given a telephone on a four-party line instead. A week later, at the direction of the Orlando police department, the company connected a telephone in a neighboring house to the same party line.3 The police attached to this telephone an automatic actuator, a tape recorder, and a set of earphones. The equipment was connected directly to the wall outlet in such a way that the police could hear and record all conversations on the party line without the necessity of lifting the receiver on their telephone. This arrangement not only afforded the police continuous access to all of Lee's outgoing and incoming calls, but also eliminated the telltale "click" that would otherwise have warned conversing parties that someone else on the line had picked up a receiver.

Page 380

Further, the arrangement insured that noises in the house occupied by the police would not be heard by anyone else on the line. For more than a week, the police used this equipment to overhear and record telephone calls to and from Lee's residence, including calls made to Lee by the other two petitioners from private, as well as public, telephones.

At the petitioners' trial, several of these recordings were introduced in evidence by the prosecution over objection by defense counsel. In affirming the convictions, the state appellate court said that "there were no state or federal statutes applicable in Florida which would make wiretapping illegal and inadmissible in evidence. . . ."4

We disagree. There clearly is a federal statute, applicable in Florida and every other State, that made illegal the conduct of the Orlando authorities in this case. And that statute, we hold today, also made the recordings of the petitioners' telephone conversations inadmissible as evidence in the Florida court.


Section 605 of the Federal Communications Act speaks not in terms of tapping a wire, but in terms of intercepting and divulging a communication. The State concedes that the police "divulged" the petitioners' conversations within the meaning of the statute. But, it argues, the police cannot be deemed to have "intercepted" the

Page 381

telephone conversations, because people who use party lines should realize that their conversations might be overheard.

This is not a case, however, where the police merely picked up the receiver on an ordinary party line, and we need not decide whether § 605 would be applicable in those circumstances.5 For here, the police did much [88 S.Ct. 2099] more. They deliberately arranged to have a telephone connected to Lee's line without his knowledge, and they altered that connection in such a way as to permit continuous surreptitious surveillance and recording of all conversations on the line. What was done here was a far cry from the police activity in Rathbun v. United States, 355 U.S. 107, a case heavily relied upon by the respondent. There, we found no interception where "a communication [is] overheard on a regularly used telephone extension with the consent of one party to the conversation," ibid., and where the "extension had not been installed there just for this purpose, but was a regular connection, previously placed and normally used." Id. at 108. We viewed that situation as though one of the parties to the telephone conversation had simply "held out his handset so that another could hear out of it." Id. at 110-111. In the present case, by contrast, there was neither "the consent of one party" nor a "regularly used" telephone "not . . . installed . . . just for [the] purpose" of surveillance. The conduct of the Orlando

Page 382

police, deliberately planned and carried out, clearly amounted to interception of the petitioners' communications within the meaning of § 605 of the Federal Communications Act.6


The remaining question is...

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