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Olmstead v. United States

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Bloomberg Law

Citation. 277 U.S. 438, 48 S. Ct. 564, 72 L. Ed. 944 (1928)

Brief Fact Summary. The conversations of various individuals involved in illegal liquor sales were tapped.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. “A standard which would forbid the reception of evidence, if obtained by other than nice ethical conduct by government officials, would make society suffer and give criminals greater immunity than has been known heretofore. In the absence of controlling legislation by Congress, those who realize the difficulties in bringing offenders to justice may well deem it wise that the exclusion of evidence should be confined to cases where rights under the Constitution would be violated by admitting it.”


Facts. Various individuals were convicted of liquor related crimes, including conspiracy. The operation grossed a substantial amount of money. The leading conspirator and the general manager of the business was one of the Petitioners, Olmstead (the “Petitioner”). The main office of the business was in Seattle and there were three telephones in the office, each on a different line. There were also telephones in an office the Petitioner had in his own home, at the home of his associates and various other places in Seattle. A lot of communication occurred between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.
“The information which led to the discovery of the conspiracy and its nature and extent was largely obtained by intercepting messages on the telephones of the conspirators by four federal prohibition officers. Small wires were inserted along the ordinary telephone wires from the residences of four of the [suspects] and those leading from the chief office. The insertions were made without trespass upon any property of the defendants. They were made in the basement of the large office building. The taps from house lines were made in the streets near the houses.”
Various conversations were taped and testified to by government witnesses.

Issue. “[W]hether the use of evidence of private telephone conversations between the defendants and others, intercepted by means of wire tapping, amounted to a violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments[?]”

Content Type: Brief


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