Elkins v. United States

Decision Date27 June 1960
Docket NumberNo. 126,126
PartiesJames Butler ELKINS and Raymond Frederick Clark, Petitioners, v. UNITED STATES of America
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Frederick Bernays Wiener, Washington, D.C., for petitioners.

Mr. Malcolm Richard Wilkey, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioners were indicted in the United States District Court in Oregon for the offense of intercepting and divulging telephone communications and of conspiracy to do so. 47 U.S.C. §§ 501, 605, 47 U.S.C.A. §§ 501, 605; 18 U.S.C. § 371, 18 U.S.C.A. § 371. Before trial the petitioners made a motion to suppress as evidence several tape and wire recordings and a recording machine, which had originally been seized by state law enforcement officers in the home of petitioner Clark under circumstances which, two Oregon courts had found, had rendered the search and seizure unlawful.1 At the hearing on the motion the district judge assumed without deciding that the articles had been obtained as the result of an unreasonable search and seizure, but denied the motion to suppress because there was no evidence that any 'agent of the United States had any knowledge or information or suspicion of any kind that this search was being contemplated or was eventually made by the State officers until they read about it in the newspaper.' At the trial the articles in question were admitted in evidence against the petitioners, and they were convicted.

The convictions were affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 266 F.2d 588. That court agreed with the district judge that it was unnecessary to determine whether or not the original state search and seizure had been lawful, because there had been no participation by federal officers. 'Hence the unlawfulness of the State search and seizure, if indeed they were unlawful, did not entitle defendants to an order of the District Court suppressing the property seized.' 266 F.2d at page 594.

We granted certiorari, 361 U.S. 810, 80 S.Ct. 61, 4 L.Ed.2d 58, to consider a question of importance in the administration of federal justice. The question is this: May articles obtained as the result of an unreasonable search and seizure by state officers, without involvement of federal officers, be introduced in evidence against a defendant over his timely objection in a federal criminal trial? In a word, we re-examine here the validity of what has come to be called the silver platter doctrine.2 For the reasons that follow we conclude that this doctrine can no longer be accepted.

To put the issue in historic perspective, the appropriate starting point must be Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S 383, 34 S.Ct. 341, 58 L.Ed 652, decided in 1914. It was there that the Court established the rule which excludes in a federal criminal prosecution evidence obtained by federal agents in violation of the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights. The foundation for that decision was set out in forthright words:

'The effect of the 4th Amendment is to put the courts of the United States and Federal officials, in the exercise of their power and authority, under limitations and restraints as to the exercise of such power and authority, and to forever secure the people, their persons, houses, papers and effects, against all unreasonable searches and seizures under the guise of law. This protection reaches all alike, whether accused of crime or not, and the duty of giving to it force and effect is obligatory upon all entrusted under our Federal system with the enforcement of the laws. The tendency of those who execute the criminal laws of the country to obtain conviction by means of unlawful seizures and enforced confessions, the latter often obtained after subjecting accused persons to unwarranted practices destructive of rights secured by the Federal Constitution, should find no sanction in the judgments of the courts, which are charged at all times with the support of the Constitution and to which people of all conditions have a right to appeal for the maintenance of such fundamental rights.

'* * * If letters and private documents can thus be seized and held and used in evidence against a citizen accused of an offense, the protection of the 4th Amenment declaring his right to be secure against such searches and seizures is of no value, and, so far as those thus placed are concerned, might as well be stricken from the Constitution. The efforts of the courts and their officials to bring the guilty to punishment, praiseworthy as they are, are not to be aided by the sacrifice of those great principles established by years of endeavor and suffering which have resulted in their embodiment in the fundamental law of the land.' 232 U.S. 383, 391—393, 34 S.Ct. 341, 344.

To the exclusionary rule of Weeks v. United States there has been unquestioning adherence for now almost half a century. See Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385, 40 S.Ct. 182, 64 L.Ed. 319; Gouled v. United States, 255 U.S. 298, 41 S.Ct. 261, 65 L.Ed. 647; Amos v. United States, 255 U.S. 313, 41 S.Ct. 266, 65 L.Ed. 654; Agnello v. United States, 269 U.S. 20, 46 S.Ct. 4, 70 L.Ed. 145; Go-Bart Importing Co. v. United States, 282 U.S. 344, 51 S.Ct. 153, 75 L.Ed. 374; Grau v. United States, 287 U.S. 124, 53 S.Ct. 38, 77 L.Ed. 212; McDonald v. United States, 335 U.S. 451, 69 S.Ct. 191, 93 L.Ed. 153; United States v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48, 72 S.Ct. 93, 96 L.Ed. 59.

But the Weeks case also announced, unobtrusively but nonetheless definitely, another evidentiary rule. Some of the articles used as evidence against Weeks had been unlawfully seized by local police officers acting on their own account. The Court held that the admission of this evidence was not error for the reason that 'the 4th Amendment is not directed to individual misconduct of such officials. Its limitations reach the Federal government and its agencies.' 232 U.S. at page 398, 34 S.Ct. at page 346. Despite the limited discussion of this second ruling in the Weeks opinion, the right of the prosecutor in a federal criminal trial to avail himself of evidence unlawfully seized by state officers apparently went unquestioned for the next thirty-five years. See, e.g., Byars v. United States, 273 U.S. 28, 33, 47 S.Ct. 248, 250, 71 L.Ed. 520; Feldman v. United States, 322 U.S. 487, 492, 64 S.Ct. 1082, 1084, 88 L.Ed. 1408.3

That such a rule would engender practical difficulties in an era of expanding federal criminal jurisdiction could not, perhaps, have been foreseen. In any event the difficulties soon appeared. They arose from the entirely commendable practice of state and federal agents to cooperate with each other in the investigation and detection of criminal activity. When in a federal criminal prosecution evidence which had been illegally seized by state officers was sought to be introduced, the question inevitably arose whether there had been such participation by federal agents in the search and seizure as to make applicable the exclusionary rule of Weeks. See Flagg v. United States, 2 Cir., 233 F. 481, 483; United States v. Slusser, D.C., 270 F. 818, 820; United States v. Falloco, D.C., 277 F. 75, 82; Legman v. United States, 3 Cir., 295 F. 474, 476—478; Marron v. United States, 9 Cir., 8 F.2d 251, 259; United States v. Brown, D.C., 8 F.2d 630, 631.

This Court first came to grips with the problem in Byars v. United States, 273 U.S. 28, 47 S.Ct. 248. There it was held that when the participation of the federal agent in the search was 'under color of his federal office' and the search 'in substance and effect was a joint operation of the local and federal officers,' then the evidence must be excluded, because 'the effect is the same as though (the federal agent) had engaged in the undertaking as one exclusively his own.' 273 U.S. at page 33, 47 S.Ct. at page 250. In Gambino v. United States, 275 U.S. 310, 48 S.Ct. 137, 72 L.Ed. 293, the Court went further. There state officers had seized liquor from the defendants' automobile after an unlawful search in which no federal officers had participated. The liquor was admitted in evidence against the defendants in their subsequent federal trial for violation of the National Prohibition Act, 27 U.S.C.A. § 1 et seq. This Court reversed the judgments of conviction, holding that the illegally seized evidence should have been excluded. Pointing out that there was 'no suggestion that the defendants were committing, at the time of the arrest, search, and seizure, any state offense, or that they had done so in the past, or that the (state) troopers believed that they had,' the Court found that '(t)he wrongful arrest, search, and seizure were made solely on behalf of the United States.' 275 U.S., at pages 314, 316, 48 S.Ct. at page 138.

Despite these decisions, or perhaps because of them, cases kept arising in which the federal courts were faced with determining whether there had been such participation by federal officers in a lawless state search as to make inadmissible in evidence that which had been seized. And it is fair to say that in their approach to this recurring question, no less than in their disposition of concrete cases, the federal courts did not find themselves in complete harmony, nor even internally self-consistent.4 No less difficulty was experienced by the courts in determining whether, even in the absence of actual participation by federal agents, the state officers' illegal search and seizure had nevertheless been made 'solely on behalf of the United States.' 5

But difficult and unpredictable as may have been their application to concrete cases, the controlling principles seemed clear up to 1949. Evidence which had been seized by federal officers in violation of the Fourth Amendment could not be used in a federal criminal prosecution. Evidence which had been obtained by state agents in an unreasonable search and seizure was...

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