United States v. United States District Court, 407 U.S. 297; 92 S. Ct. 2125; 32 L. Ed. 2d 752 (1972)

United States v. United States District Court, 407 U.S. 297; 92 S. Ct. 2125; 32 L. Ed. 2d 752 (1972)

Facts—The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ordered the government fully to disclose to defendants information gathered in wiretaps authorized by the attorney general without judicial warrant. The government was investigating the dynamite bombing of a CIA office, and the defendants thought they may have improperly gathered information for this investigation through an illegal wiretap. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to vacate this order, which the government appealed.

Question—Must the government obtain prior judicial approval for wiretaps in domestic security cases?


ReasonsJ. Powell (8–0, J. Rehnquist not participating). Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act authorized the use of wiretaps when obtained through a court order. The act specified that it was not designed to limit or expand presidential powers. This language was not intended to allow the president or attorney general to evade this requirement in domestic security cases, especially in those where “[t]here is no evidence of any involvement, directly or indirectly, of a foreign power.” Katz v. United States established both the need for prior judicial approval of wiretaps and the standard of “reasonableness.” Reasonableness can vary from one case to another, but there is no warrant for the court to carve out a “national security” exception to this requirement. The concept of national security can be inherently vague, courts should not find the issues surrounding such wiretaps to be “too subtle and complex for judicial evaluation,” and judges are used to maintaining secrecy in similar cases. Congress may wish to consider special legislation for national security matters, but warrants will still require probable cause.

J. Douglas, concurring, viewed any national security exception as an invitation to “gross invasions of privacy.” He traced the desire to make such an exception to the fact that the nation was “in the throes of another national seizure of paranoia.” Douglas was especially concerned about the government’s use of wiretaps to keep track of possible political enemies.

J. White, concurring, would base the decision on the interpretation of con- gressional statute rather than on constitutional grounds.

Leave a Reply