United States v. White Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Government authorities, through the use of an informant, secretly recorded conversations with the Respondent, James A. White (the “Respondent”). The informant was not present during the trial, but the recorded conversations were admitted.

Facts of the case

A government informant, Harvey Jackson, wore a concealed radio transmitter and engaged in four conversations with defendant White at three different locations: Jackson’s house, a restaurant, and Jackson’s automobile. Government agents listened to each of the radio transmissions, thereby overhearing defendant White make self-incriminating remarks regarding his involvement in multiple narcotics transactions. Jackson was unavailable during the trial, so the prosecution offered the testimony of the agents who had conducted the electronic surveillance as evidence.


Whether the electronic recording of private conversations with the Respondent for the purpose of instantaneous dissemination with other agents violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution?


The recordings do not violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. The majority affirms that the Respondent cannot rely on the expectation that a conversation is private, and in doing so affirm a line of cases that upheld the seemingly private conversations recorded by government agents. The majority believes that it would be illogical to draw a line between conversations heard through agents without electronic recording and those without the electronic recording.


The Court held that the testimony of governmental agents who related certain conversations which had occurred between defendant and a government informant, and which the agents overheard by monitoring the frequency of a radio transmitter carried by the informant and concealed on his person was not precluded by the Fourth Amendment. The Court also concluded that the lower appellate court misinterpreted both Katz and U.S. Const. amend. IV and erred in applying Katz to events that occurred before that decision was rendered by the court. The Court concluded that under pre-Katz law, the electronic surveillance of defendant involved did not violate his rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

  • Case Brief: 1971
  • Petitioner: United States
  • Respondent: James A. White
  • Decided by: Burger Court

Citation: 401 US 745 (1971)
Argued: Nov 10, 1969
ReArgued: Oct 20, 1970
Decided: Apr 5, 1971