Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347; 88 S. Ct. 507; 19 L. Ed. 2d 576 (1967)

Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347; 88 S. Ct. 507; 19 L. Ed. 2d 576 (1967)

Facts—A federal District Court in California convicted Charles Katz of violating federal communication statutes by transmitting wagering information by telephone from Los Angeles to Miami and Boston. At the trial, evidence was introduced of Katz’s telephone conversations at his end overheard by FBI agents who had attached an electronic listening and recording device to the outside of the public telephone booth from which Katz had placed his calls. Consistent with precedents, the Court of Appeals had rejected the contention that the recordings had been obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment because there was “no physical entrance into the area occupied” by the accused.

Question—Are police required to obtain warrants for wiretaps?


ReasonsJ. Stewart (7–1). The Fourth Amendment protects people and not simply “areas” against unreasonable searches and seizures. The reach of that amendment cannot turn upon the presence or absence of a physical intrusion into any given enclosure. The protection does not extend only to tangible property and to incidents where there has been trespass. What a person seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected. The defendant’s presence in a glass phone booth was irrelevant since his intention was not to exclude “the intruding eye” but “the uninvited ear.”

The surveillance was so narrowly circumscribed that a judge could have authorized the search and seizure. Omission of this authorization bypassed the safeguards provided by an objective predetermination of probable cause and substituted instead the far less reliable procedure of an after-the-event justification. This sort of bypassing leaves individuals secure from Fourth Amendment violations only in the discretion of the police.

J. Black argued in dissent that eavesdropping was not a search and seizure since there was nothing tangible to be seized. Black noted that the Framers of the Fourth Amendment had not included prohibitions against purposely and surreptitiously overhearing conversations.

NoteKatz overruled Olmstead and Goldman v. United States, 316 U.S. 129 (1942). The Court distinguished between domestic and foreign wiretapping in United States v. United States District Court, 407 U.S. 297 (1972).

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