Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 48 S. Ct. 564, 72 L. Ed. 944 (1928)
Author: Seth

Facts: Olmstead along with several others were convicted in the District Court for the Western District of Washington of a conspiracy to violate the National Prohibition Act (27 USCA) by unlawfully possessing, transporting and importing intoxicating liquors and maintaining nuisances, and by selling intoxicating liquors. In Olsteads’ Seattle offices, there were three telephones on three different lines and the call numbers were said to be given to likely customers. Based on information given to federal agents, four federal prohibition officers’ inserted wiretaps along the telephones wires from the residences of the petitioners all the way to the chief office. The insertions were made without trespass upon any property of the defendants.

Judgment/Disposition: Affirmed

Issue(s): Whether the use of evidence of private telephone conversations between the defendants and others, intercepted by means of wiretapping, amounted to a violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

Holding: The court held that the government’s wiretapping of conversations did not amount to a physical search and seizure and thus were not protected by the Fourth Amendment. The court further held that since the Fifth Amendment did not apply to this case since the Fourth Amendment was not violated.

Majority Rational: Chief Justice Taft relied upon the historical purpose of the Fourth Amendment, which was directed against general warrants and writs of assistance so that the government could not search a man’s house, his person, his papers, and his effects, against his will. Taft’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment was that it only pertained to material things, and not voluntary conversations that were secretly overheard. He further noted that the intervening wires are not part of his house or office, any more than are the highways along which they are stretched. Taft goes on to state that “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”.

Dissent: Justice Brandeis, who wrote a dissenting opinion, accused the majority of acting in a contradictory manner. He cited former Chief Justice Marshall’s words from McCulloch v. Maryland by stating “We must never forget…that it is a constitution we are expounding”. Justice Brandeis noted that since that ruling, the court has repeatedly sustained the exercise of power by Congress, under various clauses of that instrument, over objections of which the founders could not have dreamed. Most importantly, he writes “Clauses guaranteeing to the individual protection against specific abuses of power, must have a similar capacity of adaptation to a changing world”. He goes on to talk about Constitutions by stating “They are not ephemeral enactments, designed to meet passing occasions. They are, to use the words of Chief Justice Marshall, ‘designed to approach immortality as nearly as human institutions can approach it’”. Like Chief Justice Taft, Justice Brandeis also notes some historical aspects of the Fourth Amendment. He writes “When the Fourth and Fifth Amendments were adopted ‘the form that evil had theretofore taken’ had been necessarily simple. Force and violence were then the only means known to man by which a government could directly effect self-incrimination” He also uses some of the language in Boyd v. United States to emphasize his point in which it says “time works changes, brings into existence new conditions and purposes”. The court should not rely on such as narrow interpretation of the Fourth Amendment and extend its protection to modern technology, such as telephone wiretaps.

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