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Olmstead V United States 1928 Essay Research

Olmstead V. United States (1928) Essay, Research Paper

Olmstead v. United States (1928)

Opinion delivered by Chief Justice Taft

Vote: 5-4

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.

Procedural History:

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.

Legal Issue:

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.

Legal Reasoning:

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.”

Dissenting opinion:

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.]