Landmark Supreme Court Case: Olmstead v. U.S. (1928)
Olmstead v. United States (1928) is the 55th landmark Supreme Court case, the sixth 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
- Science & Technology
- 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.
Olmstead v. United States (1928)
In Weeks v. United States (1914), the Court held unanimously that illegal seizure of items from a private residence was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and established the exclusionary rule that prohibits admission of illegally obtained evidence in federal courts. Because the Bill of Rights did not at the time extend to cover states, such a prohibition extended only to federal agents and covered only federal trials.
Roy Olmstead and petitioners were convicted for alleged conspiracy to violate the National Prohibition Act by unlawfully possessing, transporting, and selling alcohol. Seventy-two additional persons, aside from the petitioners, were indicted. The evidence provided by the wiretapped telephone conversations disclosed “a conspiracy of amazing magnitude” to engage in bootlegging, involving the employment of some fifty persons, use of sea vessels for transportation, an underground storage facility in Seattle, and the maintenance of a central office fully equipped with executives, bookkeepers, salesmen, and an attorney. According to the record, even in a bad month, the sales amounted to some $176,000; the grand total for a year probably came out to some $2 million.
Olmstead was the general manager of this business, receiving fifty percent of all the profits. The information that led to the discovery of his involvement and the conspiracy itself was largely obtained by four federal Prohibition officers who were able to intercept messages on his and other conspirators’ telephones. No laws were violated in installing the wiretapping equipment, as the officers did not trespass upon either the homes or the offices of the defendants; instead, the equipment was placed in the streets near the houses and in the basement of the large office building.
The wiretapping went on for several months, and the records revealed significant details on the business transactions of the petitioners and their employees. Stenographic notes were made of the conversations, and their accuracy was testified to by the government witnesses. The evidence disclosed full details of the operations of the bootlegging business; in addition, it showed the relationship between Olmstead with members of the Seattle police, which resulted in prompt release of some of the arrested members of the conspiracy and promises to officers of payment.
Several petitioners, including Olmstead, challenged their convictions, arguing that the use of evidence of wiretapped private telephone conversations amounted to a violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.
Olmstead Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Did the use of wiretapped private telephone conversations violate the recorded party’s Fourth and Fifth amendments?
A: No wiretapped phone conversations do not violate the 4th or 5th amendment.
5-4 ruling the Fourth Amendment’s proscription on unreasonable search and seizure nor the Fifth Amendment protection against self incrimination apply to wiretaps. The use of wiretapped conversations as incriminating evidence were constitutional because they were voluntarily made between the parties and their associates, not forcibly or illegally made to conduct those conversations.
Moreover, the parties’ Fourth Amendment rights were not infringed because mere wiretapping does not constitute a search and seizure. These terms refer to an actual physical examination of one’s person, papers, tangible material effects, or home – not their conversations. Wiretapping may be unethical, but no court may exclude evidence solely for moral reasons.
When criticized for his opinion, Justice Taft mocked his foes as he wrote to a friend:
If they think we are going to be frightened in our effort to stand by the law and give the public a chance to punish criminals, they are mistaken, even though we are condemned for lack of high ideals.
Next: Criminal Justice Case: Powell v Alabama (1932)
Previous Criminal Justice Case: Weeks v. U.S. (1914)
Next Case: JW Hampton v. US (1928)
Previous Case: Buck v. Bell (1927)