Landmark Supreme Court Case: Wolf v. Colorado (1949)
Wolf v. Colorado (1949) is the 93rd landmark Supreme Court case, eleventh in the Criminal Rights module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Wolf v. Colorado (1949)
Julius A. Wolf, Charles H. Fulton, and Betty Fulton were charged with conspiracy to perform an abortion. At trial, Wolf objected to evidence material and admissible as to his co-defendants would be inadmissible if he were tried separately. Wolf, was convicted in the District Court of the City and County of Denver of conspiracy to perform criminal abortions. The Colorado Supreme Court upheld all three convictions in which evidence was admitted that would have been inadmissible in a prosecution for violation of a federal law in a federal court. Wolf appealed the conviction by a writ of certiorari and the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the appeal.
Q: Were the states required to exclude illegally seized evidence from trial under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments?
A: The Fourteenth Amendment does not forbidthe use of illegally seized evidence in criminal trials
6-3 holding the Fourteenth Amendment does not require that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment be excluded from use by the states in criminal prosecutions. The exclusionary rule was not a necessary ingredient of the Fourth Amendment’s right against warrantless and unreasonable searches and seizures.
While the exclusion of evidence may have been an effective way to deter unreasonable searches, other methods could be equally effective and would not fall below the minimal standards assured by the Due Process Clause. Civil remedies, such as “the internal discipline of the police, under the eyes of an alert public opinion,” were sufficient.
In Weeks (1914), the Court held that as a matter of judicial implication the exclusionary rule was enforceable in federal courts but not derived from the explicit requirements of the Fourth Amendment. The Wolf Court decided not to incorporate the exclusionary rule as part of the Fourth Amendment in large part because the states which had rejected the Weeks Doctrine (the exclusionary rule) had not left the right to privacy without other means of protection (i.e. the States had their own rules to deter police officers from conducting warrantless and unreasonable searches and seizures). However, because most of the states’ rules proved to be ineffective in deterrence, the Court overruled Wolf in Mapp v. Ohio (1961).
Next Criminal Rights Case: Mapp v. Ohio (1961)
Previous Criminal Rights Case: Adamson v. California (1947)
Next Case: Sweatt v. Painter (1950)
Previous Case: Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)