In the Olmstead v. U.S (1928) case, the defendants, Roy Olmstead and his employees were prosecuted for violating the Prohibition Act. They engaged in illegal smuggling, possessing, transporting, and selling of intoxicating alcohols (“Olmstead v. United States,” n.d.). Upon suspecting the illicit trade, the federal agents installed wiretaps to access and record the defendants’ conversations in their homes and main office without a court warrant.
In this regard, Olmstead appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to suppress the evidence arguing the telephone recordings violated the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and evidence should be inadmissible. Although the majority led by Chief Justice Taft maintained that wire-tapping violated neither the Fifth nor the Fourth Amendment, Justice Louis Brandeis provided a dissenting opinion, which later became incredibly influential in judicial constitutional interpretation.
Justice Brandeis argued that the Fourth Amendment sought to limit the government’s powers in conducting seizures and searches. He disagreed with the majority’s verdict that wire-tapping did not amount to the Fourth Amendment’s violation because it was not forceful or illegally made. In his view, “Clauses guaranteeing to the individual protection against specific abuses of power must have a similar capacity of adaptation to a changing world” (“Olmstead v. United States,” n.d., para. 58).
The lesson he wanted to convey is that judges need to consider the spirit of the Constitution or civil liberties to interpret the Fourth Amendment rather than relying on the general language. Justice Brandeis imagined a time when civil liberties such as prevention against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment will be overlooked based on the language of the governing laws instead of ethics under scrutiny.
Today, Justice Brandeis’ opinion has become the foundation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments’ application with enhanced technological advancements in the American justice system. With the majority’s decision, Americans would be at risk of gross violation of their rights through government invasion of their privacy. As Justice Brandeis reasoned, changes occur with time, thus, necessitating new conditions. Indeed, Katz vs. the U.S. (1967) ruling overturned the Olmstead verdict, hence, reinforcing his argument on the dire need to focus on reasonable expectations of citizens’ rights under the Fifth and Fourth Amendments irrespective of the method of gathering evidence. Justice Brandeis’ dissent will always remain influential in Supreme Court decisions relating to technology, privacy, and self-incrimination rights.
Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928). (n.d.). Web.