Olmstead V. United States (1928) Essay, Research Paper
Olmstead v. United States (1928)
Opinion delivered by Chief Justice Taft
Case reached Supreme Court by writ of certiorari.
The evidence in the records discloses a conspiracy of amazing magnitude
to import, possess, and sell liquor unlawfully. Involved were not less than
fifty employees, two sea-going vessels for transportation of the goods to
British Columbia, a ranch beyond the city limits of Seattle with a large
underground cache to store the liquor, and many other caches around the area of
Seattle, a maintained city office with executives, secretaries, salesmen,
deliverymen, dispatchers, bookkeepers, collectors, scouts, and an attorney.
Olmstead was the leading conspirator and manager of the business. His invested
capital brought him 50 percent of the total income of the company (said to be
over 2 million/year), and the other 50 percent went to 11 other investors.
In the main office building there were three different telephones with
separate lines for each. Telephone communication was made throughout the city,
the homes of the investors, customers, Vancouver, to and from the office
building and ranch. Times were fixed for the delivery of the “stuff” to places
along the Puget Sound and from there was transported to the various caches.
The information leading to the arrests was made primarily by four
Federal prohibition officers. The officers placed small wires along the main
lines outside the homes of the four main conspirators and that of the office.
No intrusion was made into private property. Olmstead was found to have made
dealings with members of the Seattle police to secure the release of any of the
conspiring parties that might get arrested.
Petitioners were convicted in the District Court of the Western District
of Washington for conspiracy to violate the National Prohibition Act. The
conviction was upheld upon appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The
case was granted writ of certiorari to the US Supreme Court.
Whether the use as 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.
The Court held that the use of wiretaps to obtain evidence is not a
violation of the Fourth Amendment protecting against unreasonable searches and
seizures, since the information obtained was neither material, nor was it a
thing to be seized.
The decision of the lower courts were upheld.
1. “There is no room in the present case for applying the 5th amendment unless
the fourth was first violated. . .[petitioners] were continually and voluntarily
transacting business without knowledge of the interception.”
2. The well-known purpose of the 4th was to protect against general warrants
and writs of assistance to prevent the use of governmental force to search a
citizen’s house, his person, papers, and effects and their seizure against his
will. The amendment protects material things. The description on the warrant
necessary to make the proceeding lawful must specify the persons or things to be
3. There was no searching. There was no seizure.
4. No entry in the defendants’ houses.
5. The wording of the 4th cannot be extended to included telegraphs and
telephones that reach 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.”
Written by Justice Brandeis. He quotes Chief Justice Marshall in
M’Culloch v. Maryland when he says, “We must never forget that it is a
Constitution we are expounding.” Since then, Brandeis says, the Supreme Court
has continuously sustained the exercise of power by Congress over objects which
the founding fathers could have never dreamed. As time goes on, there become
more and more ways for the government to intrude upon the privacy of the citizen
(through technology.) “Advances in the psychic and related sciences may bring
means of exploring unexpressed beliefs, thoughts and emotions.” The founding
fathers, in writing the Constitution, knew that only part of the pain, pleasure,
and satisfaction of life could be found in the material things. They wished to
protect the beliefs, thoughts, and emotions of the individual, to ultimately
protect his privacy, his right to be alone, the value most highly kept by
civilized men. Hence any intrusion upon that privacy is subject to the 4th
amendment protections. [Government cannot be allowed to commit crimes in order
to apprehend the private criminal. Crime is contagious. If the government
breaks the law, it breeds a general contempt for the law.]