Rathbun v. United States, No. 30

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtWARREN
Citation78 S.Ct. 161,355 U.S. 107,2 L.Ed.2d 134
PartiesFloyd Linn RATHBUN, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES of America
Docket NumberNo. 30
Decision Date09 December 1957

355 U.S. 107
78 S.Ct. 161
2 L.Ed.2d 134
Floyd Linn RATHBUN, Petitioner,

v.

UNITED STATES of America.

No. 30.
Argued Oct. 29, 1957.
Decided Dec. 9, 1957.
Rehearing Denied Jan. 13, 1958.

See 355 U.S. 925, 78 S.Ct. 363.

Mr. Thomas K. Hudson, Denver, Colo., for petitioner.

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

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

This case concerns the issue of whether the contents of a communication overheard on a regularly used telephone extension with the consent of one party to the conversation are admissible in federal court.1 Petitioner was convicted of violations of 18 U.S.C. § 875(b) and (c), 18 U.S.C.A. § 875(b, c)

Page 108

for transmitting an interstate communication which threatened the life of one Sparks in order to obtain from him a stock certificate which Sparks held as collateral for a loan. On March 16, 1955, petitioner, who was in New York, spoke by telephone with Sparks, who was in Pueblo, Colorado. Anticipating another call from petitioner, Sparks requested that members of the Pueblo police force overhear the conversation. When petitioner phoned Sparks in the early morning of March 17, two police officers at Sparks' direction listened to the conversation on a telephone extension in another room of the Sparks home. This extension had not been installed there just for this purpose but was a regular connection, previously placed and normally used. At the trial the police officers testified over timely objection that during this conversation petitioner had threatened Sparks' life because he would no surrender the certificate. Petitioner was convicted and the Court of Appeals affirmed. 236 F.2d 514. We granted certiorari. 352 U.S. 965, 77 S.Ct. 354, 1 L.Ed.2d 320.

Benanti v. United States, 355 U.S. 96, 78 S.Ct. 155, determined that information obtained and divulged by state agents in violation of Section 605 of the Federal Communications Act2 is inadmissible in federal court. The pertinent portion of Section 605 states:

'* * * 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 * * *.'

Since there was a divulgence of the contents of a communication, the only issue on the facts before us is whether there has been an unauthorized interception within the meaning of Section 605.3 The federal courts have split in

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their determination of this question. Some courts have held that the statute proscribes the use of an extension telephone to allow someone to overhear a conversation without the consent of both parties.4 Others have concluded that the statute is inapplicable where one party has consented.5 We hold that Section 605 was not violated in the case before us because there has been no 'interception' as Congress intended that the word be used. Every statute must be interpreted in the light of reason and common understanding to reach the results intended by the legislature. Cf. Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 143 U.S. 457, 12 S.Ct. 511, 36 L.Ed. 226; American Security & Trust Co. v. Commissioners, 224 U.S. 491, 32 S.Ct. 553, 56 L.Ed. 856. That principle would be violated if we attributed to Congress acceptance of the results that would occur here from the position argued by petitioner.

The telephone extension is a widely used instrument of home and office,6 yet with nothing to evidence congressional intent, petitioner argues that Congress meant to

Page 110

place a severe restriction on its ordinary use by subscribers, denying them the right to allow a family member, an employee, a trusted friend, or even the police to listen to a converation to which a subscriber is a party. Section 605 points to the opposite conclusion. Immediately following the portion quoted above, the statute continues:

'* * * no person not being entitled thereto shall receive or assist in receiving any interstate or foreign communication by wire or radio and use the same or any information therein contained for his own benefit or for the benefit of another not entitled thereto * * *.'

The clear inference is that one entitled to receive the communication may use it for his own benefit or have another use it for him. The communication itself is not privileged, and one party may not force the other to secrecy merely by using a telephone. It has been conceded by those who believe the conduct here violates Section 605 that either party may record the conversation and publish it.7 The conduct of the party would differ in no way if instead of repeating the message he held out

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his handset so that another could hear out of it. We see no distinction between that sort of action and permitting an outsider to use an extension telephone for the same purpose.

The error in accepting petitioner's argument is brought into sharper focus by the fact that Section 605 is penal in nature, the first violation being punishable by a fine of not more than $10,000 or by imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year, or both.8 For example, it follows from petitioner's argument that every secretary who listens to a business conversation at her employer's direction in order to record it would be marked as a potential federal criminal. It is unreasonable to believe that Congress meant to extend criminal liability to conduct which is wholly innocent and ordinary.

Common experience tells us that a call to a particular telephone number may cause the bell to ring in more than one ordinarily used instrument. Each party to a telephone conversation takes the risk that the other party may have an extension telephone and may allow another to overhear the conversation. When such takes place there has...

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246 practice notes
  • Legal Issues Relating To The Testing, USE, and Deployment of An Intrusion-Detection System (Einstein 2.0) To Protect Unclassified Computer Networks In The Executive Branch, 09-1
    • United States
    • Opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice
    • January 9, 2009
    ...informant is not protected by the Fourth Amendment); Lopez v. United States, 373 U.S. 427, 439 (1963) (same); Rathbun v. United States, 355 U.S. 107, 111 (1957) ("Each party to a telephone conversation takes the risk that the other party may have an extension telephone and may allow another......
  • U.S. v. Craig, Nos. 76-2089
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • March 21, 1978
    ...conversations are generally admissible where one party to the conversation consents to the electronic recording. Rathbun v. United States, 355 U.S. 107, 78 S.Ct. 161, 2 L.Ed.2d 134 (1957); United States v. Bastone, 526 F.2d 971 (7th Cir. 1975), cert. denied, 425 U.S. 973, 96 S.Ct. 2172, 48 ......
  • State v. DeMartin
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • September 7, 1976
    ...law' and that '(w)here one of the parties consents, it is not unlawful,' citing Lopez, supra, On Lee, supra, and Rathbun v. United States, 355 U.S. 107, 78 S.Ct. 161, 2 L.Ed.2d 134. 1968 U.S. Code Cong. and Admin. News p. 2182. [171 Conn. 542] C For these reasons, then, it is apparent that ......
  • People v. Cooper, Cr. 4233
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • May 24, 1965
    ...authorized Page 496 and consented to by Green. (People v. Malotte (1956) 46 Cal.2d 59, 64, 292 P.2d 517; Rathbun v. United States (1957) 355 U.S. 107, 109, 78 S.Ct. 161, 2 L.Ed.2d Seventh: Defendant argues that his trial counsel was incompetent in conducting his defense so that he was denie......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
245 cases
  • Legal Issues Relating To The Testing, USE, and Deployment of An Intrusion-Detection System (Einstein 2.0) To Protect Unclassified Computer Networks In The Executive Branch, 09-1
    • United States
    • Opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice
    • January 9, 2009
    ...informant is not protected by the Fourth Amendment); Lopez v. United States, 373 U.S. 427, 439 (1963) (same); Rathbun v. United States, 355 U.S. 107, 111 (1957) ("Each party to a telephone conversation takes the risk that the other party may have an extension telephone and may allow another......
  • U.S. v. Craig, Nos. 76-2089
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • March 21, 1978
    ...conversations are generally admissible where one party to the conversation consents to the electronic recording. Rathbun v. United States, 355 U.S. 107, 78 S.Ct. 161, 2 L.Ed.2d 134 (1957); United States v. Bastone, 526 F.2d 971 (7th Cir. 1975), cert. denied, 425 U.S. 973, 96 S.Ct. 2172, 48 ......
  • State v. DeMartin
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • September 7, 1976
    ...law' and that '(w)here one of the parties consents, it is not unlawful,' citing Lopez, supra, On Lee, supra, and Rathbun v. United States, 355 U.S. 107, 78 S.Ct. 161, 2 L.Ed.2d 134. 1968 U.S. Code Cong. and Admin. News p. 2182. [171 Conn. 542] C For these reasons, then, it is apparent that ......
  • People v. Cooper, Cr. 4233
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • May 24, 1965
    ...authorized Page 496 and consented to by Green. (People v. Malotte (1956) 46 Cal.2d 59, 64, 292 P.2d 517; Rathbun v. United States (1957) 355 U.S. 107, 109, 78 S.Ct. 161, 2 L.Ed.2d Seventh: Defendant argues that his trial counsel was incompetent in conducting his defense so that he was denie......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Supreme Court Behavior and Civil Rights
    • United States
    • Political Research Quarterly Nbr. 13-2, June 1960
    • June 1, 1960
    ...Brown v. U.S., 356 U.S. 148 (1958); Green v. U.S. (1), 355 U.S. 184 (1957); Green v. U.S. (2), 356U.S. 165 (1958); Rathbun v. U.S., 355 U.S. 107 (1957); Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957); Youngdahl v. Rainfair, 355 U.S. 131 (1957); Sacher v. U.S., 356 U.S. 576 (1958); Ashdown v. Utah, 35......

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