Katz v. United States 1967 Supreme Court Case
Historical Background In 1928, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the case Olmstead v. United States, that wiretapping was legal in criminal investigations. However, it did not prevent from other forms of electronic surveillance, such as eavesdropping with bugs or other listening devices. Congress specifically prohibited "unauthorized interceptance and divulgence." The Supreme Court ruled that eavesdropping was legal in investigations as long as there was no illegal entry, in other words it doesn’t violate the 4th Amendment.
Circumstances of the Case Charles Katz was suspected of involvement in illegal gambling activities in Los Angeles. The FBI observed him using a public telephone. They did this by attaching a eavesdropping device to the top of the phone booth.
Circumstances of the Case Over a few consecutive days the FBI recorded Katz conversations. They then used the recordings to prosecute Katz for transmitting wagering information by telephone, which is a violation of federal law.
Constitutional Issues The Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures”. However, the debate is over whether it is limited to search and seizures of tangible property, or whether it protects search and seizures of intangible things such as conversations overheard by others or conversations that have been recorded electronically, as well. The other issue raised was whether there are “constitutionally protected areas" outside of a person’s private home or office.
Arguments For The Fourth Amendment requires a warrant stating the probable cause for a search and the names of people or things to be seized. The FBI did not follow these requirements. They did not get a warrant. Although the phone booth is for public use, it becomes private when a person is holding a confidential conversation. A person’s conversations should remain private unless the proper procedure is followed and a warrant is issued.
Arguments Against Although the Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable search and seizures”, no tangible property was searched or seized. A phone booth is a public place, and Katz didn’t try to make it private. A phone booth is not a “constitutionally protected area.” The Olmstead case provided a precedent which the FBI followed for this case. There was no actually entry into the phone booth, so as in the Olmstead case, any evidence gathered was obtained legally.
Decision and Rationale The court overturned the Olmstead rule, and Katz conviction in a 7 to 1 vote. The court rejected arguments from both sides, and made their own. They said that when a person knowingly exposes themselves to the public it is not constitutionally protected. However what a person seeks to protect as private, as Katz conversation, then it is constitutionally protected. If the FBI had sought previous authorization or permission from a judge to bug the phone booth, it would have likely been granted. But they did not. Since this court case, law enforcement officials are required to seek a court’s permission to use electronic surveillance, in the same way they would obtain a search warrant.
My Opinion I agree with the court’s decision. I believe that if the FBI had followed the correct procedure to bug the phone booth then they could convict Katz. However they they didn’t follow procedure, so the court was right in dropping the charges against Katz. I think that the constitution is what protects us against things like this, and I feel that it wasn’t right of them to just bug the phone booth without him even knowing. No matter where anyone is, they shouldn’t have to worry about unreasonable search and seizures, or they deserve to be informed.