Olmstead v. United States (1927)

Overview:

 The 1927 case of Olmstead v. United States proved to be an incredibly important and influential decision.  The case revolved around the prosecution of Washington state resident Roy Olmstead for attempting to smuggle and sell alcohol in violation of Prohibition. After suspecting Olmstead for years, the government gathered evidence by wiretapping Olmstead’s office phones without first obtaining a warrant. Olmstead argued that the police had violated his 4th and 5th amendment rights. The Supreme Court, in a 5 – 4 decision, ruled that the government could use the evidence obtained from wiretapping. The “Exclusionary Rule,” which holds that illegally-obtained evidence may not be used against defendants at trial, was in force at the time. However Chief Justice William Taft cited previous decisions which characterized the 4th amendment as only applying to physical search and seizure.

This case is notable not just for the immediate outcome, but also for the important ideas in the dissent. Justice Louis Brandeis wrote an influential dissent that was the foundation for future court decisions. In it, he attacked the proposition that the government had the power to wiretap phones without warrant, arguing that there is no difference between listening to a phone call and reading a sealed letter. Brandeis argued that the Founders had “conferred against the government, the right to be let alone – the most comprehensive of rights and the right most favored by civilized men.” Furthermore Brandeis advanced the idea that the ‘unclean hands’ principle, which is the idea that courts should not aid a plaintiff who has acted unethically with regards to the subject of the case, applies to the federal government. The government should not violate the laws of states to gather evidence (wiretapping was illegal in many states, including Washington) and then use that evidence to prosecute people.  

The Brandeis dissent was widely cited and came to prominence in later Supreme Court decisions. The 1967 Katz v. U.S. case overturned the Olmstead ruling, holding that warrants were in fact required to wiretap payphones, with Brandeis’s dissent held as a primary influence. Its description of the reasonable expectation of privacy citizens have has been enshrined in law and constitutional interpretation, and has implications for a range of issues, from abortion rights to the freedom of the press.
 

Student Handout (PDF)

 Resources:

 Bill of Rights, Bill of Rights Institute

Olmstead v. United States, The Oyez Project

Brandeis Dissent, Cornell Legal Information Institute

Katz v. United States, The Oyez Project

Questions:

What role does the right to privacy play in modern political issues?