1972 June 19

Supreme Court: Fourth Amendment Applies to Domestic Surveillance


In an extremely important decision on this day, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled, in United States v. U.S. District Court, that Fourth Amendment requirements regarding searches applies to all surveillance cased in the U.S. The decision is often referred to as the “Keith” case, after the U.S. District Court Judge Damon Keith.

The Justice Department had prosecuted two members of the radical White Panther Party for conspiracy to destroy government property through bombs. When the defense filed a pre-trial motion for the prosecution to disclose the information it had from electronic surveillance, the Justice Department argued that, because the conspiracy involved an attempt to overthrow the government, the surveillance fell under the national security exception to Title III of the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control Act, which authorized domestic wiretapping (June 19, 1968). Judge Keith rejected that argument and ordered the government to disclose the information. The Justice Department appealed the judge’s ruling (hence the case title, United States v. U.S. District Court). The Supreme Court unanimously upheld Judge Keith. The decision had an enormous impact on FBI wiretapping practices, threatening more systematic disclosures.

Coming just days after the Watergate break-in, on June 17, 1972, the decision was largely overshadowed by the rapidly unfolding Watergate Scandal.

Justice Powell for the Court: “The price of lawful public dissent must not be a dread of subjection to an unchecked surveillance power. Nor must the fear of unauthorized official eavesdropping deter vigorous citizen dissent and discussion of Government action in private conversation. For private dissent, no less than open public discourse, is essential to our free society.”

Learn more: Stephen Schulhofer, More Essential Than Ever: The Fourth Amendment in the Twenty-First Century (2012)

Learn more about the history of wiretapping:  https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/aclu-history-wiretapping-new-kind-search-and-seizure

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