Today marks the 90th anniversary of the landmark Olmstead v. United States wiretapping case decided by the Supreme Court, which had a far-reaching impact still felt today.
Roy Olmstead was a lieutenant on the Seattle police force who like other officers, had a side job. In his case, Olmstead’s part-time job was as the most successful bootlegger in the Pacific Northwest during Prohibition.
And it wasn’t a small-scale operation. Olmstead brought in millions of dollars each year using a combination of modern-office management and his connections within the police force.
Olmstead’s empire was ferreted out by a federal investigation that became a landmark in the annals of American law. A team spent months listening and noting his business calls, using a wiretapping system outside of his offices.
After his conviction, Olmstead’s appeal made it to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the wiretapping act was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights relating to unreasonable search and seizure
In a 5-4 verdict, the Supreme Court decided on June 4, 1928 that the unapproved wiretapping was permissible. Speaking for the majority, Chief Justice William Howard Taft said private telephone communications were no different from casual conversations overheard in a public place.
That decision was overturned in 1967 in Katz v. The United States, which made wiretapping by state and federal investigators subject to warrant requirements.
The more-enduring law was made by Justice Louis D. Brandeis’s dissent in Olmstead. Brandeis said the since wiretapping was illegal in the state of Washington, it was illegal when done by federal authorities outside of the legal guidelines.
In his statement, Brandeis also articulated a constitutional “right to be let alone” – words invoked by the majority nearly half a century later in Roe v. Wade.
After losing his appeal, Olmstead did a few years in prison, was later pardoned, and spent part of his remaining years as a Christian Science practitioner, working on programs about alcohol abstinence.