Wednesday, 20 November 2013 01:15

Katz v. U.S.: Expectation of Privacy

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In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court decided by a 7 to 1 vote, that putting a warrantless wiretap on a public telephone booth was an unreasonable search that violated the Constitution's Fourth Amendment

The case involved Charles Katz, who was charged with conducting illegal gambling activities in various states, crossing state lines and violating federal law. To obtain evidence of Katz's crime, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) placed a wiretap, without a warrant, on the public telephone he used to conduct his activities. According to the FBI, agents only listened to Katz's conversations, and only to the parts of the conversations that involved illegal gambling.

At trial, Katz tried to exclude evidence linked to the wiretaps, stating that warrantless wiretapping of a public phone booth was an unreasonable search of a "constitutionally protected area" and a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The federal agents argued that a public phone booth was not constitutionally protected and so they could use a wiretap without a warrant.

In the Court's majority opinion, written by Justice Potter Stewart, the issue of whether the phone booth was a "constitutionally protected area" was not addressed. Instead, the majority found that both the defendant and the petitioner in the case were wrong to argue that whether the warrantless wiretap was permitted depended on the physical area put under surveillance. The Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment protects people and not places. "What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection . . . . But what he seeks to preserve as private even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected," according to the Court.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Hugo Black stated that the Fourth Amendment "itself shows that the search is to be of material things -- the person, the house, his papers or his effects... These words connote the idea of tangible things with size, form, and weight, things capable of being searched, seized, or both. The second clause of the Amendment still further establishes its Framers' purpose to limit its protection to tangible things by providing that no warrants shall issue but those "particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." A conversation overheard by eavesdropping, whether by plain snooping or wiretapping, is not tangible and, under the normally accepted meanings of the words, can neither be searched nor seized."

Resources

Katz v. United States

Katz v. United States, Ruling

Katz v. United States, Dissent

 

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