On Lee v. United States, No. 543

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtJACKSON
Citation96 L.Ed. 1270,343 U.S. 747,72 S.Ct. 967
Decision Date02 June 1952
Docket NumberNo. 543
PartiesON LEE v. UNITED STATES

343 U.S. 747
72 S.Ct. 967
96 L.Ed. 1270
ON LEE

v.

UNITED STATES.

No. 543.
Argued April 24, 1952.
Decided June 2, 1952.
Rehearing Denied Oct. 13, 1952.
See 73 S.Ct. 5.

Page 748

Mr. Gilbert S. Rosenthal, New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. Robert S. Erdahl, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was convicted on a two-count indictment, one charging the substantive offense of selling a pound of opium in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 173 and 174, 21 U.S.C.A. §§ 173, 174, the other conspiring to sell the opium in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371, 18 U.S.C.A. § 371. The Court of Appeals sustained the conviction by a divided court.1 We granted certiorari.2

The questions raised by petitioner have been considered but only one is of enough general interest to merit discussion. That concerns admission in evidence of two conversations petitioner had, while at large on bail pend-

Page 749

ing trial, with one Chin Poy. The circumstances are these:

Petitioner, On Lee, had a laundry in Hoboken. A customer's room opened on the street, back of it was a room for ironing tables, and in the rear were his living quarters. Chin Poy, an old acquaintance and former employee, sauntered in and, while customers came and went, engaged the accused in conversation in the course of which petitioner made incriminating statements. He did not know that Chin Poy was what the Government calls 'an undercover agent' and what petitioner calls a 'stool pigeon' for the Bureau of Narcotics. Neither did he know that Chin Poy was wired for sound, with a small microphone in his inside overcoat pocket and a small antenna running along his arm. Unbeknownst to petitioner, an agent of the Narcotics Bureau named Lawrence Lee had stationed himself outside with a receiving set properly tuned to pick up any sounds the Chin Poy microphone transmitted. Through the large front window Chin Poy could be seen and through the receiving set his conversation, in Chinese, with petitioner could be heard by agent Lee. A few days later, on the sidewalks of New York, another conversation took place between the two, and damaging admissions were again 'audited' by agent Lee.

For reasons left to our imagination, Chin Poy was not called to testify about petitioner's incriminating admissions. Against objection,3 however, agent Lee was al-

Page 750

lowed to relate the conversations as heard with aid of his receiving set. Of this testimony, it is enough to say that it was certainly prejudicial if its admission was improper.

Petitioner contends that this evidence should have been excluded because the manner in which it was ob-

Page 751

tained violates both the search-and-seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment,4 and § 605 of the Federal Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. § 605, 47 U.S.C.A. § 605,5 and, if not rejected on those grounds, we should pronounce it inadmissible anyway under the judicial power to require fair play in federal law enforcement.

The conduct of Chin Poy and agent Lee did not amount to an unlawful search and seizure such as is proscribed by the Fourth Amendment. In Goldman v. United States, 316 U.S. 129, 62 S.Ct. 993, 86 L.Ed. 1322, we held that the action of federal agents in placing a detectaphone on the outer wall of defendant's hotel room, and thereby overhearing conversations held within the room, did not violate the Fourth Amendment. There the agents had earlier committed a trespass in order to install a listening device within the room itself. Since the device failed to work, the court expressly reserved decision as to the effect on the search-and-seizure question of a trespass in that situation. Petitioner in the instant case has seized upon that dictum, apparently on the assumption that the presence of a radio set would automatically bring him within the reservation if he can show a trespass.

But petitioner cannot raise the undecided question,for here no trespass was committed. Chin Poy entered a place of business with the consent, if not by the implied

Page 752

invitation, of the petitioner. Petitioner contends, however, that Chin Poy's subsequent 'unlawful conduct' vitiated the consent and rendered his entry a trespass ab initio.

If we were to assume that Chin Poy's conduct was unlawful and consider this argument as an original proposition, it is doubtful that the niceties of tort law initiated almost two and a half centuries ago by the case of the Six Carpenters, 8 Coke 146(a), cited by petitioner, are of much aid in determining rights under the Fourth Amendment. But petitioner's argument comes a quarter of a century too late: this contention was decided adversely to him in McGuire v. United States, 273 U.S. 95, 98, 100, 47 S.Ct. 259, 260, 261, 71 L.Ed. 556, where Mr. Justice Stone, speaking for a unanimous Court, said of the doctrine of trespass ab initio: 'This fiction, obviously invoked in support of a policy of penalizing the unauthorized acts of those who had entered under authority of law, has only been applied as a rule of liability in civil actions against them. Its extension is not favored.' He concluded that the Court would not resort to 'a fiction whose origin, history, and purpose do not justify its application where the right of the government to make use of evidence is involved.' This was followed in Zap v. United States, 328 U.S. 624, 629, 66 S.Ct. 1277, 1279, 90 L.Ed. 1477.

By the same token, the claim that Chin Poy's entrance was a trespass because consent to his entry was obtained by fraud must be rejected. Whether an entry such as this, without any affirmative misrepresentation, would be a trespass under orthodox tort law is not at all clear. See Prosser on Torts, § 18. But the rational of the McGuire case rejects such fine-spun doctrines for exclusion of evidence. The further contention of petitioner that agent Lee, outside the laundry, was a trespasser because by these aids he overheard what went on inside verges on the frivolous. Only in the case of physical entry, either

Page 753

by force, as in McDonald v. United States, 335 U.S. 451, 69 S.Ct. 191, 93 L.Ed. 153, by unwilling submission to authority, as in Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 68 S.Ct. 367, 92 L.Ed. 436, or without any express or implied consent, as in Nueslein v. District of Columbia, 73 App.D.C. 85, 115 F.2d 690, would the problem left undecided in the Goldman case be before the Court.

Petitioner relies on cases relating to the more common and clearly distinguishable problems raised where tangible property is unlawfully seized. Such unlawful seizure may violate the Fourth Amendment, even though the entry itself was by subterfuge or fraud rather than force. United States v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48, 72 S.Ct. 93; Gouled v. United States, 255 U.S. 298, 41 S.Ct. 261, 65 L.Ed. 647 (the authority of the latter case is sharply limited by Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, at page 463, 48 S.Ct. 564, at page 567, 72 L.Ed. 944). But such decisions are inapposite in the field of mechanical or electronic devices designed to overhear or intercept conversation, at least where access to the listening post was not obtained by illegal methods.

Petitioner urges that if his claim of unlawful search and seizure cannot be sustained on authority, we reconsider the question of Fourth Amendment rights in the field of overheard or intercepted conversations. This apparently is upon the theory that since there was a radio set involved, he could succeed if he could persuade the Court to overturn the leading case holding wiretapping to be outside the ban of the Fourth Amendment, Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 48 S.Ct. 564, 72 L.Ed. 944, and the cases which have followed it. We need not consider this, however, for success in this attempt, which failed in Goldman v. United States, 316 U.S. 129, 62 S.Ct. 993, 86 L.Ed. 1322, would be of no aid to petitioner unless he can show that his situation should be treated as wretapping. The presence of a radio set is not sufficient to suggest more than the most attenuated analogy to wiretapping. Petitioner was talking confidentially and indiscreetly with one he trusted, and he

Page 754

was overheard. This was due to aid from a transmitter and receiver, to be sure, but with the same effect on his privacy as if agent Lee had been eavesdropping outside an open window. The use of bifocals, field glasses or the telescope to magnify the object of a witness' vision is not a forbidden search or seizure, even if they focus without his knowledge or consent upon what one supposes to be private indiscretions. It would be a dubious service to the genuine liberties protected by the Fourth Amendment to make them bedfellows with spurious liberties improvised by farfetched analogies which would liken eavesdropping on a conversation, with the connivance of one of the parties, to an unreasonable search or seizure. We find no violation of the Fourth Amendment here.

Nor do the facts show a violation of § 605 of the Federal Communications Act. Petitioner had no wires and no wireless. There was no interference with any communications facility which he possessed or was entitled to use. He was not sending messages to anybody or using a system of communications within the Act. Goldstein v. United States, 316 U.S. 114, 62 S.Ct. 1000, 86 L.Ed. 1312.

Finally, petitioner contends that even though he be overruled in all else, the evidence should be excluded as a means of disciplining law enforcement officers. Cf. McNabb v. United States, 318 U.S. 332, 63 S.Ct. 608, 87 L.Ed. 819. In McNabb, however, we held that, where defendants had been unlawfully detained in violation of the federal statute requiring prompt arraignment before a commissioner, a confession made during the detention would be excluded as evidence in federal courts even though not inadmissible on the ground of any otherwise involuntary character. But here neither agent nor informer violated...

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  • Dalia v. United States, No. 77-1722
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • April 18, 1979
    ...993, 86 L.Ed. 1322; on the person of a federal agent who recorded a conversation in the defendant's laundry, On Lee v. United States, 343 U.S. 747, 72 S.Ct. 967, 96 L.Ed. 1270; in a cabaret, Lopez v. United States, 373 U.S. 427, 83 S.Ct. 1381, 10 L.Ed.2d 462; in a law office, Osborn v. Unit......
  • Keenan v. Bagley, CASE NO. 1:01 CV 2139
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Ohio
    • April 24, 2012
    ...friends, or any of the other betrayals which are 'dirty business' may raise serious questions of credibility." On Lee v. United States, 343 U.S. 747, 757 (1952); see also Banks v. Dretke, 540 U.S. 668, 701-02 (2004); Goff v. Bagley, 601 F.3d 445, 470 (6th Cir. 2010). For that reason, defend......
  • U.S. v. Santora, Nos. 76-3440
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • October 6, 1978
    ...1122, 28 Page 461 L.Ed.2d 453; Lopez v. United States (1963) 373 U.S. 427, 83 S.Ct. 1381, 10 L.Ed.2d 462; On Lee v. United States (1952) 343 U.S. 747, 72 S.Ct. 967, 96 L.Ed. 1270). Moreover, Katz itself involved entries neither into a home nor an office, but rather the affixing of a bugging......
  • United States v. Simpson, No. 15-1295
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (10th Circuit)
    • January 10, 2017
    ...the testimony of the informant, considering that Mr. Simpson had elicited evidence bearing on impeachment.17 See On Lee v. United States , 343 U.S. 747, 757, 72 S.Ct. 967, 96 L.Ed. 1270 (1952) ("The use of informers ... may raise serious questions of credibility.").The government also point......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
483 cases
  • Dalia v. United States, No. 77-1722
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • April 18, 1979
    ...993, 86 L.Ed. 1322; on the person of a federal agent who recorded a conversation in the defendant's laundry, On Lee v. United States, 343 U.S. 747, 72 S.Ct. 967, 96 L.Ed. 1270; in a cabaret, Lopez v. United States, 373 U.S. 427, 83 S.Ct. 1381, 10 L.Ed.2d 462; in a law office, Osborn v. Unit......
  • Keenan v. Bagley, CASE NO. 1:01 CV 2139
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Ohio
    • April 24, 2012
    ...friends, or any of the other betrayals which are 'dirty business' may raise serious questions of credibility." On Lee v. United States, 343 U.S. 747, 757 (1952); see also Banks v. Dretke, 540 U.S. 668, 701-02 (2004); Goff v. Bagley, 601 F.3d 445, 470 (6th Cir. 2010). For that reason, defend......
  • U.S. v. Santora, Nos. 76-3440
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • October 6, 1978
    ...1122, 28 Page 461 L.Ed.2d 453; Lopez v. United States (1963) 373 U.S. 427, 83 S.Ct. 1381, 10 L.Ed.2d 462; On Lee v. United States (1952) 343 U.S. 747, 72 S.Ct. 967, 96 L.Ed. 1270). Moreover, Katz itself involved entries neither into a home nor an office, but rather the affixing of a bugging......
  • United States v. Simpson, No. 15-1295
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (10th Circuit)
    • January 10, 2017
    ...the testimony of the informant, considering that Mr. Simpson had elicited evidence bearing on impeachment.17 See On Lee v. United States , 343 U.S. 747, 757, 72 S.Ct. 967, 96 L.Ed. 1270 (1952) ("The use of informers ... may raise serious questions of credibility.").The government also point......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
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