United States v. Aguilar

PETITIONER:United States
RESPONDENT:Robert P. Aguilar
LOCATION:U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California

DOCKET NO.: 94-270
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 515 US 593 (1995)
ARGUED: Mar 20, 1995
DECIDED: Jun 21, 1995

James A. Feldman – on behalf of the Petitioner
Robert D. Luskin – on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

In 1986 and 1987, the FBI investigated Michael Rudy Tham and Abe Chapman as part of a nationwide investigation into healthcare provider fraud. The judge on the case authorized a wiretap of Tham and Chapman’s phones. He kept these wiretaps secret. Chapman was distantly related to U.S. District Court Judge Robert P. Aguilar. When Chapman asked Aguilar for help in the case, Aguilar talked to the judge on the case and learned about the wiretap. Though the wiretap order had expired, Aguilar told Chapman about it. When FBI agents questioned Aguilar on the matter, he lied about his knowledge and participation in the case. Aguilar was tried and convicted in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California for disclosing a wiretap and endeavoring to obstruct the due administration of justice. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the convictions, holding that disclosing an expired wiretap does not violate the law, and Aguilar did not obstruct justice because the grand jury investigating the case did not order the FBI investigation.


(1) Can an individual who endeavors to obstruct a grand jury proceeding by making false and misleading statements to prospective witnesses be prosecuted for obstruction of justice?

(2) Can an individual who knows of a wiretap and discloses it to a target in order to obstruct the interception of the target’s conversations be found guilty, regardless of whether the authorization had expired by the time the disclosure was made?

Media for United States v. Aguilar

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 20, 1995 in United States v. Aguilar

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 21, 1995 in United States v. Aguilar

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in number 94-270 United States v. Aguilar.

A jury convicted, respondent District Judge Aguilar based on allegations that Judge Aguilar assisted a convicted felon to get a conviction set aside.

Specifically, the judge informed a friend of the felon that the government had taped that friend’s phone under its investigation.

The jury convicted Judge Aguilar of legally disclosing information he had learned from a wiretap application under Section 2232 of the Criminal Court.

Even though the wiretap had unbenounced to him already expired at the time he made the disclosure and although also when questioned by the FBI regarding the events in question the respondent lie to the FBI agents.

For this the jury convicted him of endeavoring to obstruct the due administration of justice under Section 1503 of the Criminal Court.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sitting in bank reverse both convictions.

In an opinion filed with the clerk of the Court today we affirm the Ninth Circuit in Part and reverse it in Part.

In the First Part of the opinion joined by six members of the Court, we agree with the Ninth Circuit that respondent’s conduct cannot be punished as an endeavor to obstruct justice, but for different reasons in the Ninth Circuit is subscribed to.

Various Courts of Appeals in reliance on our early decision in Pettibone v. United States have construed Section 1503 to limit the very broad language of the so-called omnibus clause under which respondent was convicted.

Although, actions taken by a defendant must reflect an intent to influence grand jury proceedings, any punishable endeavor must also have the natural and probable effect if interfering with those proceedings.

Here the government failed to prove that element of the offense.

We therefore affirm to that portion of the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

We disagree however with the Ninth Circuit’s disposition of the wiretap charge in an opinion joined by eight members of the Court.

Section 2232(c) prohibits the disclosure of information that a wiretap has been sought or authorized.

The statute requires the defendant know an authorization requires for a wire interception has been made or granted and that the defendant disclose such information with intent to obstruct “such interception” in the language of the statute.

Respondent’s argument that the disclosure of expired wiretaps cannot possibly impede such interceptions, fails in the phase of the statutory language we think.

The statutory phrase, possible interception with intended to punish the situation where a defendant discloses a wiretap application that is not being granted and thus does not know whether interception will ever occur.

Respondent’s reading of the statute would create numerous unintended defenses based on impossibility.

We therefore reverse that portion of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion.

Justice Stevens has filed an opinion dissenting from this portion of the Court’s opinion.