Benanti v. United States

Decision Date09 December 1957
Docket NumberNo. 231,231
Citation355 U.S. 96,78 S.Ct. 155,2 L.Ed.2d 126
PartiesSalvatore BENANTI, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES of America
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. George J. Todaro, New York City, Jacob Kossman, Philadelphia, pa.,

Mr. John F. Davis, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Chief Justice WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented by petitioner is whether evidence obtained as the result of wiretapping by state law-enforcement officers, without participation by federal authorities, is admissible in a federal court. Petitioner was convicted of the illegal possession and transportation of distilled spirits without tax stamps affixed thereto in violation of 26 U.S.C. §§ 5008(b)(1), 5642, 26 U.S.C.A. §§ 5008(b)(1), 5642. The New York police, suspecting that petitioner and others were dealing in narcotics in violation of state law, obtained a warrant in accordance with state law1 authorizing them to tap the wires of a bar which petitioner was known to frequent. On May 10, 1956, the police overheard a conversation between petitioner and another in which it was said that 'eleven pieces' were to be transported that night at a certain time and to a certain place in New York City. Acting according to this information, the police followed and stopped a car driven by petitioner's brother. No narcotics were found, but hidden in the car were eleven five-gallon cans of alcohol without the tax stamps required by federal law. The brother and the alcohol were turned over to federal authorities and this prosecution followed.

At the trial the first government witness, a state police officer, testified to the events leading up to the discovery of the cans of alcohol in an automobile which had been driven by the petitioner and then taken by his brother to the appointed spot. No mention was made of the wiretap on direct examination. However, on cross-examination this witness admitted that the information causing the police to follow the car and intercept it came from a wiretap.2 On redirect examination the prosecutor sought to prove that the wiretap had been authorized by state law. The Government introduced a second police official, who testified substantially as the first, admitting on direct examination that a wiretap had existed and on cross-examination that the discovery of the alcohol was occasioned by knowledge of the contents of the wiretapped conversation. The words of that conversation were not disclosed to the jury although they were disclosed to the trial judge and the defense counsel.3 The record is silent as to whether the prosecutor was told the words of the conversation. However, in our view it is unimportant whether he had this information or not.

Petitioner's motion to suppress the evidence was denied and he was convicted. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed, 244 F.2d 389, holding that while the action of the state officials violated Section 605 of the Federal Communications Act, the evidence obtained from the violation was still admissible. We granted certiorari. 355 U.S. 801, 78 S.Ct. 6. Petitioner, relying on this Court's supervisory powers over the federal court system, claims that the admission of the evidence was barred by the Federal Constitution and Section 605. We do not reach the constitutional questions as this case can be determined under the statute.

Section 605 states in pertinent part:4

'* * * 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 * * *.'


In Nardone v. United States, 302 U.S. 379, 58 S.Ct. 275, 82 L.Ed. 314, and 308 U.S. 338, 60 S.Ct. 266, 84 L.Ed. 307, this Court held that evidence obtained from wiretapping by federal agents was inadmissible in federal court. In Schwartz v. State of Texas, 344 U.S. 199, 73 S.Ct. 232, 97 L.Ed. 231 the same type of evidence was held admissible in a state court where it had been obtained by state agents. The case before us, containing elements from these three cases, forces a choice between the different results reached.

The Nardone decisions laid down the underlying premises upon which is based all subsequent consideration of Section 605. The crux of those decisions is that the plain words of the statute created a prohibition against any persons violating the integrity of a system of telephonic communication and that evidence obtained in violation of this prohibition may not be used to secure a federal conviction. Nardone v. United States, 302 U.S. 379, 382, 58 S.Ct. 275, 276, 82 L.Ed. 314. Moreover, as the second Nardone decision asserts, distinctions designed to defeat the plain meaning of the statute will not be countenanced. 308 U.S. 338, 340, 60 S.Ct. 266, 267, 84 L.Ed. 307. We hold that the correct application of the above principle dictates that evidence obtained by means forbidden by Section 605, whether by state or federal agents, is inadmissible in federal court.

In this case the statute was violated if not earlier at least upon the disclosure to the jury of the existence of the intercepted communication,5 for Section 605 forbids the divulgence of 'the existence, contents, substance, purport, effect, or meaning' of the intercepted message. The effect of that violation in contributing to the conviction here is manifest. The jury were free to speculate that the existence of the communication, the source of the Government's evidence, was further proof of petitioner's criminal activities. 6 The prosecutor continued to use evidence now linked to a disclosed wiretap although he had been made aware of its existence and of its obvious significance to his case.7

Respondents argue that the evidence obtained from the disclosed wiretap should have been admissible by referring to Schwartz v. State of Texas, supra, and by drawing a parallel to the Fourth Amendment. It is urged that as long as the wiretapping occurred without the participation or even knowledge of federal law-enforcement officers, the evidence should be admitted in federal court; the Federal Government, being without fault, should not be handicapped. However, Schwartz v. State of Texas does not indicate approval of such a proposition. Both a state court and state law-enforcement officers were there involved. The rationale of that case is that despite the plain prohibition of Section 605, due regard to federal-state relations precluded the conclusion that Congress intended to thwart a state rule of evidence in the absence of a clear indication to that effect. In the instant case we are not dealing with a state rule of evidence. Although state agents committed the wiretap, we are presented with a federal conviction brought about in part by a violation of federal law,8 in this case in a federal court.9

Furthermore, confronted as we are by this clear statute, and resting our decision on its provisions, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to discuss by analogy distinctions suggested to be applicable to the Fourth Amendment. 10 Section 605 contains an express, absolute prohibition against the divulgence of intercepted communications. Nardone v. United States, 302 U.S. 379, 382, 58 S.Ct. 275, 276, 82 L.Ed. 314. This case is but another example of the use of wiretapping that was so clearly condemned under other circumstances in the second Nardone decision:11

'To forbid the direct use of (these) methods * * * but to put no curb on their full indirect use would only invite the very methods deemed 'inconsistent with ethical standards and destructive of personal liberty.' What was said in a different context in Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385, 392, 40 S.Ct. 182, 183, 64 L.Ed. 319, is pertinent here: 'The essence of a provision forbidding the acquisition of evidence in a certain way is that not merely evidence so acquired shall not be used before the Court but that it shall not be used at all."

The above principle has for its purpose enhancement of the proper administration of criminal justice. To impute to the statute anything less would give it 'a self-defeating, if not disingenuous purpose.'12 Nardone v. United States, 308 U.S. 338, 340—341, 60 S.Ct. 266, 267—268, 84 L.Ed. 307.


As an alternative argument to support the judgment below, respondent urges that the interception and divulgence in this case were no violation of Section 605 because the wiretap was placed by state agents acting in accordance with the law of New York. The Constitution and statutes of the State of New York13 provide that an ex parte order authorizing a wiretap may be issued by judges of a certain rank upon the oath or affirmation of certain officials that there is reasonable ground to believe evidence of a crime may be obtained and which identifies the telephone line and the persons who are to be affected thereby. It is undisputed that an order pursuant to that law was issued in this case and that it was executed according to state law.

Respondent does not urge that, constitutionally speaking, Congress is without power to forbid such wiretapping even in the face of a conflicting state law. Cf. Weiss v. United States, 308 U.S. 321, 327, 60 S.Ct. 269, 271, 84 L.Ed. 298. Rather the argument is that Congress has not exercised this ower and that Section 605, being general in its terms, should not be deemed to operate to prevent a State from authorizing wiretapping in the exercise of its legitimate police functions. However, we read the Federal Communications Act, and Section 605 in particular, to the contrary.

The Federal Communications Act is a comprehensive scheme for the regulation of interstate communication.14 In order to safeguard those interests protected under Section 605, that portion of the statute pertinent to this case applies both to intrastate and to interstate communications. Weiss v. United States, supra. The natural result of respondent's argument is...

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