Olmstead v. United States Case Brief

Why is the case important?

The conversations of various individuals involved in illegal liquor sales were tapped.

Facts of the case

Roy Olmstead was a suspected bootlegger. Without judicial approval, federal agents installed wiretaps in the basement of Olmstead’s building (where he maintained an office) and in the streets near his home. Olmstead was convicted with evidence obtained from the wiretaps. This case was decided along with Green v. United States, in which Green and several other defendants were similarly convicted, based on illegally obtained wire-tapped conversations, for conspiracy to violate the National Prohibition Act by importing, possessing, and selling illegal liquors. This case was also decided with McInnis v. United States.

Question

Whether the use of evidence of private telephone conversations between the defendants and others, intercepted by means of wire tapping, amounted to a violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments?

Answer

The Fourth amendment does not forbid what was done here. There was no searching. There was no seizure. The evidence was secured by the use of the sense of hearing and that only. There was no entry of the houses or offices of the defendants. By the invention of the telephone 50 years ago, and its application for the purpose of extending communications, one can talk with another at a far distant place. The language of the amendment cannot be extended and expanded to include telephone wires, reaching to the whole world from the defendant’s house or office. The intervening wires are not part of his house or office, any more than are the highways along which they are stretched.
Congress may, of course, protect the secrecy of telephone messages by making them, when intercepted, inadmissible in evidence in federal criminal trials, by direct legislation, and thus depart from the common law of evidence. But the courts may not adopt such a policy by attributing an enlarged and unusual meaning to the Fourth Amendment. The reasonable view is that one who installs in his house a telephone instrument with connecting wires intends to project his voice to those quite outside, and that the wires beyond his house, and messages while passing over them, are not within the protection of the Fourth Amendment. Here those who intercepted the projected voices were not in the house of either party to the conversation.
Neither the cases we have cited nor any of the many federal decisions brought to our attention hold the Fourth Amendment to have been violated as against a defendant, unless there has been an official search and seizure of his person or such a seizure of his papers or his tangible material effects or an actual physical invasion of his house ‘or curtilage’ for the purpose of making a seizure. The court thought, therefore, that the wire tapping here disclosed did not amount to a search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.
Additionally, the common-law rule is that the admissibility of evidence is not affected by the illegality of the means by which it was obtained.
A standard which would forbid the reception of evidence, if obtained by other than nice ethical conduct by government officials, would make society suffer and give criminals greater immunity than has been known heretofore. In the absence of controlling legislation by Congress, those who realize the difficulties in bringing offenders to justice may well deem it wise that the exclusion of evidence should be confined to cases where rights under the Constitution would be violated by admitting it.

Conclusion

The United States Supreme Court affirmed. The wire tapping of telephone conversations did not amount to a search or seizure within the meaning of U.S. Const. amend. IV . There was no room for applying U.S. Const. amend. V unless U.S. Const. amend. IV was first violated. U.S. Const. amend. IV was not violated unless there was an official search and seizure of a person, or such a seizure of his papers or his tangible material effects, or an actual physical invasion of his house or curtilage for the purpose of making a seizure. There was no evidence of compulsion to induce defendants to talk over their many telephones. They were continually and voluntarily transacting business without knowledge of the interception. The evidence was secured by the use of the sense of hearing only. There was no entry of the houses or offices of defendants.

  • Case Brief: 1928
  • Petitioner: Roy Olmstead et al.
  • Respondent: United States
  • Decided by: Taft Court

Citation: 277 US 438 (1928)
Argued: Feb 20 – 21, 1928
Decided: Jun 4, 1928