Electronic Surveillance and the Fourth Amendment

The Olmstead Case.

With the invention of the microphone, the telephone, and the dictagraph recorder, it became possible to “eavesdrop” with much greater secrecy and expediency. Inevitably, the use of electronic devices in law enforcement was challenged, and in 1928 the Court reviewed convictions obtained on the basis of evidence gained through taps on telephone wires in violation of state law. On a five-to-four vote, the Court held that wiretapping was not within the confines of the Fourth Amendment.403 Chief Justice Taft, writing the opinion of the Court, relied on two lines of argument for the conclusion. First, because the Amendment was designed to protect one’s property interest in his premises, there was no search so long as there was no physical trespass on premises owned or controlled by a defendant. Second, all the evidence obtained had been secured by hearing, and the interception of a conversation could not qualify as a seizure, for the Amendment referred only to the seizure of tangible items. Furthermore, the violation of state law did not render the evidence excludable, since the exclusionary rule operated only on evidence seized in violation of the Constitution.404

Federal Communications Act.

Six years after the decision in Olmstead, Congress enacted the Federal Communications Act and included in § 605 of the Act a broadly worded proscription on which the Court seized to place some limitation upon governmental wiretapping.405 Thus, in Nardone v. United States,406 the Court held that wiretapping by federal officers could violate § 605 if the officers both intercepted and divulged the contents of the conversation they overheard, and that testimony in court would constitute a form of prohibited divulgence. Such evidence was therefore excluded, although wiretapping was not illegal under the Court’s interpretation if the information was not used outside the governmental agency. Because § 605 applied to intrastate as well as interstate transmissions,407 there was no question about the applicability of the ban to state police officers, but the Court declined to apply either the statute or the due process clause to require the exclusion of such evidence from state criminal trials.408 State efforts to legalize wiretapping pursuant to court orders were held by the Court to be precluded by the fact that Congress in § 605 had intended to occupy the field completely to the exclusion of the states.409

Nontelephonic Electronic Surveillance.

The trespass ratio-nale of Olmstead was used in cases dealing with “bugging” of premises rather than with tapping of telephones. Thus, in Goldman v. United States,410 the Court found no Fourth Amendment violation when a listening device was placed against a party wall so that conversations were overheard on the other side. But when officers drove a “spike mike” into a party wall until it came into contact with a heating duct and thus broadcast defendant’s conversations, the Court determined that the trespass brought the case within the Amendment.411 In so holding, the Court, without alluding to the matter, overruled in effect the second rationale of Olmstead, the premise that conversations could not be seized.

The Berger and Katz Cases.

In Berger v. New York,412 the Court confirmed the obsolescence of the alternative holding in Olmstead that conversations could not be seized in the Fourth Amendment sense.413 Berger held unconstitutional on its face a state eavesdropping statute under which judges were authorized to issue warrants permitting police officers to trespass on private premises to install listening devices. The warrants were to be issued upon a showing of “reasonable ground to believe that evidence of crime may be thus obtained, and particularly describing the person or persons whose communications, conversations or discussions are to be overheard or recorded.” For the five-Justice majority, Justice Clark discerned several constitutional defects in the law. “First, . . . eavesdropping is authorized without requiring belief that any particular offense has been or is being committed; nor that the ‘property’ sought, the conversations, be particularly described.”

“The purpose of the probable-cause requirement of the Fourth Amendment to keep the state out of constitutionally protected areas until it has reason to believe that a specific crime has been or is being committed is thereby wholly aborted. Likewise the statute’s failure to describe with particularity the conversations sought gives the officer a roving commission to ‘seize’ any and all conversations. It is true that the statute requires the naming of ‘the person or persons whose communications, conversations or discussions are to be overheard or recorded. . . .’ But this does no more than identify the person whose constitutionally protected area is to be invaded rather than ‘particularly describing’ the communications, conversations, or discussions to be seized. . . . Secondly, authorization of eavesdropping for a two-month period is the equivalent of a series of intrusions, searches, and seizures pursuant to a single showing of probable cause. Prompt execution is also avoided. During such a long and continuous (24 hours a day) period the conversations of any and all persons coming into the area covered by the device will be seized indiscriminately and without regard to their connection with the crime under investigation. Moreover, the statute permits . . . extensions of the original two-month period—presumably for two months each—on a mere showing that such extension is ‘in the public interest.’ . . . Third, the statute places no termination date on the eavesdrop once the conversation sought is seized. . . . Finally, the statute’s procedure, necessarily because its success depends on secrecy, has no requirement for notice as do conventional warrants, nor does it overcome this defect by requiring some showing of special facts. On the contrary, it permits unconsented entry without any showing of exigent circumstances. Such a showing of exigency, in order to avoid notice, would appear more important in eavesdropping, with its inherent dangers, than that required when conventional procedures of search and seizure are utilized. Nor does the statute provide for a return on the warrant thereby leaving full discretion in the officer as to the use of seized conversations of innocent as well as guilty parties. In short, the statute’s blanket grant of permission to eavesdrop is without adequate judicial supervision or protective procedures.”414

Both Justices Black and White in dissent accused the Berger majority of so construing the Fourth Amendment that no wiretapping-eavesdropping statute could pass constitutional scrutiny,415 and, in Katz v. United States,416 the Court in an opinion by one of the Berger dissenters, Justice Stewart, modified some of its language and pointed to Court approval of some types of statutorily-authorized electronic surveillance. Just as Berger had confirmed that one rationale of the Olmstead decision, the inapplicability of “seizure” to conversations, was no longer valid, Katz disposed of the other rationale. In the latter case, officers had affixed a listening device to the outside wall of a telephone booth regularly used by Katz and activated it each time he entered; since there had been no physical trespass into the booth, the lower courts held the Fourth Amendment not relevant. The Court disagreed, saying that “once it is recognized that the Fourth Amendment protects people—and not simply ‘areas’—against unreasonable searches and seizures, it becomes clear that the reach of that Amendment cannot turn upon the presence or absence of a physical intrusion into any given enclosure.”417 Because the surveillance of Katz’s telephone calls had not been authorized by a magistrate, it was invalid; however, the Court thought that “it is clear that this surveillance was so narrowly circumscribed that a duly authorized magistrate, properly notified of the need for such investigation, specifically informed of the basis on which it was to proceed, and clearly apprised of the precise intrusion it would entail, could constitutionally have authorized, with appropriate safeguards, the very limited search and seizure that the government asserts in fact took place.”418 The notice requirement, which had loomed in Berger as an obstacle to successful electronic surveillance, was summarily disposed of.419 Finally, Justice Stewart observed that it was unlikely that electronic surveillance would ever come under any of the established exceptions so that it could be conducted without prior judicial approval.420

Following Katz, Congress enacted in 1968 a comprehensive statute authorizing federal officers and permitting state officers pursuant to state legislation complying with the federal law to seek warrants for electronic surveillance to investigate violations of prescribed classes of criminal legislation.421 The Court has not yet had occasion to pass on the federal statute and to determine whether its procedures and authorizations comport with the standards sketched in Osborn, Berger, and Katz or whether those standards are somewhat more flexible than they appear to be on the faces of the opinions.422

Warrantless “National Security” Electronic Surveillance.

In Katz v. United States,423 Justice White sought to preserve for a future case the possibility that in “national security cases” electronic surveillance upon the authorization of the President or the Attorney General could be permissible without prior judicial approval. The Executive Branch then asserted the power to wiretap and to “bug” in two types of national security situations, against domestic subversion and against foreign intelligence operations, first basing its authority on a theory of “inherent” presidential power and then in the Supreme Court withdrawing to the argument that such surveillance was a “reasonable” search and seizure and therefore valid under the Fourth Amendment. Unanimously, the Court held that at least in cases of domestic subversive investigations, compliance with the warrant provisions of the Fourth Amendment was required.424 Whether or not a search was reasonable, wrote Justice Powell for the Court, was a question which derived much of its answer from the warrant clause; except in a few narrowly circumscribed classes of situations, only those searches conducted pursuant to warrants were reasonable. The Government’s duty to preserve the national security did not override the guarantee that before government could invade the privacy of its citizens it must present to a neutral magistrate evidence sufficient to support issuance of a warrant authorizing that invasion of privacy.425 This protection was even more needed in “national security cases” than in cases of “ordinary” crime, the Justice continued, because the tendency of government so often is to regard opponents of its policies as a threat and hence to tread in areas protected by the First Amendment as well as by the Fourth.426 Rejected also was the argument that courts could not appreciate the intricacies of investigations in the area of national security or preserve the secrecy which is required.427

The question of the scope of the President’s constitutional powers, if any, remains judicially unsettled.428 Congress has acted, however, providing for a special court to hear requests for warrants for electronic surveillance in foreign intelligence situations, and permitting the President to authorize warrantless surveillance to acquire foreign intelligence information provided that the communications to be monitored are exclusively between or among foreign powers and there is no substantial likelihood any “United States person” will be overheard.429


Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928). back
Among the dissenters were Justice Holmes, who characterized “illegal” wiretapping as “dirty business,” 277 U.S. at 470, and Justice Brandeis, who contributed to his opinion the famous peroration about government as “the potent, the omnipresent, teacher” which “breeds contempt for law” among the people by its example. Id. at 485. More relevant here was his lengthy argument rejecting the premises of the majority, an argument which later became the law of the land. (1) “To protect [the right to be left alone], every unjustifiable intrusion by the Government upon the privacy of the individual, whatever the means employed, must be deemed a violation of the Fourth Amendment.” Id. at 478. (2) “There is, in essence, no difference between the sealed letter and the private telephone message. . . . The evil incident to invasion of the privacy of the telephone is far greater than that involved in tampering with the mails. Whenever a telephone line is tapped, the privacy of the persons at both ends of the line is invaded and all conversations between them upon any subject . . . may be overheard.” Id. at 475–76. back
Ch. 652, 48 Stat. 1103 (1934), providing, inter alia, that “. . . no person not being authorized by the sender shall intercept any communication and divulge or publish the existence, contents, purport, effect, or meaning of such intercepted communication to any person.” Nothing in the legislative history indicated what Congress had in mind in including this language. The section, which appeared at 47 U.S.C. § 605, was rewritten by Title III of the Omnibus Crime Act of 1968, 82 Stat. 22, § 803, so that the “regulation of the interception of wire or oral communications in the future is to be governed by” the provisions of Title III. S. REP. NO. 1097, 90th Cong., 2d Sess. 107–08 (1968). back
302 U.S. 379 (1937). Derivative evidence, that is, evidence discovered as a result of information obtained through a wiretap, was similarly inadmissible, Nardone v. United States, 308 U.S. 338 (1939), although the testimony of witnesses might be obtained through the exploitation of wiretap information. Goldstein v. United States, 316 U.S. 114 (1942). Eavesdropping on a conversation on an extension telephone with the consent of one of the parties did not violate the statute. Rathbun v. United States, 355 U.S. 107 (1957). back
Weiss v. United States, 308 U.S. 321 (1939). back
Schwartz v. Texas, 344 U.S. 199 (1952). At this time, evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment could be admitted in state courts. Wolf v. Colorado, 338 U.S. 25 (1949). Although Wolf was overruled by Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961), it was some seven years later and after wiretapping itself had been made subject to the Fourth Amendment that Schwartz was overruled in Lee v. Florida, 392 U.S. 378 (1968). back
Bananti v. United States, 355 U.S. 96 (1957). back
316 U.S. 129 (1942). back
Silverman v. United States, 365 U.S. 505 (1961). See also Clinton v. Virginia, 377 U.S. 158 (1964) (physical trespass found with regard to amplifying device stuck in a partition wall with a thumb tack). back
388 U.S. 41 (1967). back
388 U.S. at 50–53. back
388 U.S. at 58–60. Justice Stewart concurred because he thought that the affidavits in this case had not been sufficient to show probable cause, but he thought the statute constitutional in compliance with the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 68. Justice Black dissented, arguing that the Fourth Amendment was not applicable to electronic eavesdropping but that in any event the “search” authorized by the statute was reasonable. Id. at 70. Justice Harlan dissented, arguing that the statute with its judicial gloss was in compliance with the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 89. Justice White thought both the statute and its application in this case were constitutional. Id. at 107. back
388 U.S. at 71, 113. back
389 U.S. 347 (1967). back
389 U.S. at 353. “We conclude that the underpinnings of Olmstead and Goldman have been so eroded by our subsequent decisions that the ‘trespass’ doctrine there enunciated can no longer be regarded as controlling. The Government’s activities in electronically listening to and recording the petitioner’s words violated the privacy upon which he justifiably relied while using the telephone booth and thus constituted a ‘search and seizure’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.” back
389 U.S. at 354. The “narrowly circumscribed” nature of the surveillance was made clear by the Court in the immediately preceding passage. “[The Government agents] did not begin their electronic surveillance until investigation of the petitioner’s activities had established a strong probability that he was using the telephone in question to transmit gambling information to persons in other States, in violation of federal law. Moreover, the surveillance was limited, both in scope and in duration, to the specific purpose of establishing the contents of the petitioner’s unlawful telephonic communications. The agents confined their surveillance to the brief periods during which he used the telephone booth, and they took great care to overhear only the conversations of the petitioner himself.” Id. For similar emphasis upon precision and narrow circumscription, see Osborn v. United States, 385 U.S. 323, 329–30 (1966). back
“A conventional warrant ordinarily serves to notify the suspect of an intended search . . . . In omitting any requirement of advance notice, the federal court . . . simply recognized, as has this Court, that officers need not announce their purpose before conducting an otherwise authorized search if such an announcement would provoke the escape of the suspect or the destruction of critical evidence.” 389 U.S. at 355 n.16. back
389 U.S. at 357–58. Justice Black dissented, feeling that the Fourth Amendment applied only to searches for and seizures of tangible things and not conversations. Id. at 364. Two “beeper” decisions support the general applicability of the warrant requirement if electronic surveillance will impair legitimate privacy interests. Compare United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276 (1983) (no Fourth Amendment violation in relying on a beeper, installed without warrant, to aid in monitoring progress of a car on the public roads, since there is no legitimate expectation of privacy in destination of travel on the public roads), with United States v. Karo, 468 U.S. 705 (1984) (beeper installed without a warrant may not be used to obtain information as to the continuing presence of an item within a private residence). back
Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 82 Stat. 211, 18 U.S.C. §§ 251020. back
The Court has interpreted the statute several times without reaching the constitutional questions. United States v. Kahn, 415 U.S. 143 (1974); United States v. Giordano, 416 U.S. 505 (1974); United States v. Chavez, 416 U.S. 562 (1974); United States v. Donovan, 429 U.S. 413 (1977); Scott v. United States, 436 U.S. 128 (1978); Dalia v. United States, 441 U.S. 238 (1979); United States v. New York Telephone Co., 434 U.S. 159 (1977); United States v. Caceres, 440 U.S. 741 (1979). Dalia supra, did pass on one constitutional issue, whether the Fourth Amendment mandated specific warrant authorization for a surreptitious entry to install an authorized “bug.” See also Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979) (no reasonable expectation of privacy in numbers dialed on one’s telephone, so Fourth Amendment does not require a warrant to install “pen register” to record those numbers). back
389 U.S. 347, 363–64 (1967) (concurring opinion). Justices Douglas and Brennan rejected the suggestion. Id. at 359–60 (concurring opinion). When it enacted its 1968 electronic surveillance statute, Congress alluded to the problem in ambiguous fashion, 18 U.S.C. § 2511(3), which the Court subsequently interpreted as having expressed no congressional position at all. United States v. United States District Court, 407 U.S. 297, 302–08 (1972). back
United States v. United States District Court, 407 U.S. 297 (1972). Chief Justice Burger concurred in the result and Justice White concurred on the ground that the 1968 law required a warrant in this case, and therefore did not reach the constitutional issue. Id. at 340. Justice Rehnquist did not participate. Justice Powell carefully noted that the case required “no judgment on the scope of the President’s surveillance power with respect to the activities of foreign powers, within or without this country.” Id. at 308. back
The case contains a clear suggestion that the Court would approve a congressional provision for a different standard of probable cause in national security cases. “We recognize that domestic security surveillance may involve different policy and practical considerations from the surveillance of ‘ordinary crime.’ The gathering of security intelligence is often long range and involves the interrelation of various sources and types of information. The exact targets of such surveillance may be more difficult to identify than in surveillance operations against many types of crimes specified in Title III. Often, too, the emphasis of domestic intelligence gathering is on the prevention of unlawful activity or the enhancement of the Government’s preparedness for some future crisis or emergency. . . . Different standards may be compatible with the Fourth Amendment if they are reasonable both in relation to the legitimate need of Government for intelligence information and the protected rights of our citizens. For the warrant application may vary according to the governmental interest to be enforced and the nature of citizen right deserving protection. . . . It may be that Congress, for example, would judge that the application and affidavit showing probable cause need not follow the exact requirements of § 2518 but should allege other circumstances more appropriate to domestic security cases. . . .” 407 U.S. at 322–23. back
407 U.S. at 313–24. back
407 U.S. at 320. back
See United States v. Butenko, 494 F.2d 593 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 419 U.S. 881 (1974); Zweibon v. Mitchell, 516 F.2d 594 (D.C. Cir. 1975), cert. denied, 425 U.S. 944 (1976), appeal after remand, 565 F.2d 742 (D.C. Cir. 1977), on remand, 444 F. Supp. 1296 (D.D.C. 1978), aff’d in part, rev’d in part, 606 F.2d 1172 (D.C. Cir. 1979), cert. denied, 453 U.S. 912 (1981); Smith v. Nixon, 606 F.2d 1183 (D.C. Cir. 1979), cert. denied, 453 U.S. 912 (1981); United States v. Truong Ding Hung, 629 F.2d 908 (4th Cir. 1980), after remand, 667 F.2d 1105 (4th Cir. 1981); Halkin v. Helms, 690 F.2d 977 (D.C. Cir. 1982). back
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, Pub. L. 95–511, 92 Stat. 1797, 50 U.S.C. §§ 18011811. See United States v. Belfield, 692 F.2d 141 (D.C. Cir. 1982) (upholding constitutionality of disclosure restrictions in Act). back