Sunday, January 1, 2017

Wiretapping — Olmstead v. United States (1928)

via Popular Mechanics...
For as long as people have communicated via wires, other people have been finding ways to listen in on their communications. After the telegraph was invented in 1837 and the telephone in 1876, detectives like the Pinkertons quickly realized the usefulness of tapping phone lines, for reasons varying from personal to corporate espionage. States and government agencies like the Justice Department acted slowly in response to the phenomena, passing laws and regulations without consistency.

Roy Olmstead
These laws would be ultimately challenged by one of the largest Constitutional undertakings of all time: Prohibition. Ray (sic) Olmstead was a cop-turned-bootlegger out of Seattle, known as "the Good Bootlegger" for his insistence of only selling alcohol imported from Canada and refusing to let his employees carry guns. But running his operation like a more traditional business opened Olmstead up to the same structural flaws of a business, which allowed federal agents to wiretap and then raid him.

Olmstead sued, claiming his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, the Supreme Court disagreed in a 5-4 decision. Chief Justice and former President William Howard Taft believed in a strict interpretation of the Fourth Amendment, one that could only rely on physical presence and sight. The telephone just didn't feature into the equation.

However, it was the dissent that truly lasted. Given by Justice Louis Brandeis, it begins to focus on the future in a way that sounds downright prophetic today. "The progress of science," Brandeis wrote, "in furnishing the Government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wire-tapping. Ways may someday be developed by which the Government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home. Advances in the psychic and related sciences may bring means of exploring unexpressed beliefs, thoughts and emotions." more