The Berger and Katz Cases

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.


The Berger and Katz Cases.—In Berger v. New York,412 the Court confirmed the obsolescence of the alternative holding in Olmstead that conversations could not be seized in the Fourth Amendment sense.413 Berger held unconstitutional on its face a state eavesdropping statute under which judges were authorized to issue warrants permitting police officers to trespass on private premises to install listening devices. The warrants were to be issued upon a showing of “reasonable ground to believe that evidence of crime may be thus obtained, and particularly describing the person or persons whose communications, conversations or discussions are to be overheard or recorded.” For the five-Justice majority, Justice Clark discerned several constitutional defects in the law. “First, . . . eavesdropping is authorized without requiring belief that any particular offense has been or is being committed; nor that the ‘property’ sought, the conversations, be particularly described.”

“The purpose of the probable-cause requirement of the Fourth Amendment to keep the state out of constitutionally protected areas until it has reason to believe that a specific crime has been or is being committed is thereby wholly aborted. Likewise the statute’s failure to describe with particularity the conversations sought gives the officer a roving commission to ‘seize’ any and all conversations. It is true that the statute requires the naming of ‘the person or persons whose communications, conversations or discussions are to be overheard or recorded. . . .’ But this does no more than identify the person whose constitutionally protected area is to be invaded rather than ‘particularly describing’ the communications, conversations, or discussions to be seized. . . . Secondly, authorization of eavesdropping for a two-month period is the equivalent of a series of intrusions, searches, and seizures pursuant to a single showing of probable cause. Prompt execution is also avoided. During such a long and continuous (24 hours a day) period the conversations of any and all persons coming into the area covered by the device will be seized indiscriminately and without regard to their connection with the crime under investigation. Moreover, the statute permits . . . extensions of the original two-month period—presumably for two months each—on a mere showing that such extension is ‘in the public interest.’ . . . Third, the statute places no termination date on the eavesdrop once the conversation sought is seized. . . . Finally, the statute’s procedure, necessarily because its success depends on secrecy, has no requirement for notice as do conventional warrants, nor does it overcome this defect by requiring some showing of special facts. On the contrary, it permits unconsented entry without any showing of exigent circumstances. Such a showing of exigency, in order to avoid notice, would appear more important in eavesdropping, with its inherent dangers, than that required when conventional procedures of search and seizure are utilized. Nor does the statute provide for a return on the warrant thereby leaving full discretion in the officer as to the use of seized conversations of innocent as well as guilty parties. In short, the statute’s blanket grant of permission to eavesdrop is without adequate judicial supervision or protective procedures.”414

Both Justices Black and White in dissent accused the Berger majority of so construing the Fourth Amendment that no wiretapping-eavesdropping statute could pass constitutional scrutiny,415 and, in Katz v. United States,416 the Court in an opinion by one of the Berger dissenters, Justice Stewart, modified some of its language and pointed to Court approval of some types of statutorily-authorized electronic surveillance. Just as Berger had confirmed that one rationale of the Olmstead decision, the inapplicability of “seizure” to conversations, was no longer valid, Katz disposed of the other rationale. In the latter case, officers had affixed a listening device to the outside wall of a telephone booth regularly used by Katz and activated it each time he entered; since there had been no physical trespass into the booth, the lower courts held the Fourth Amendment not relevant. The Court disagreed, saying that “once it is recognized that the Fourth Amendment protects people—and not simply ‘areas’—against unreasonable searches and seizures, it becomes clear that the reach of that Amendment cannot turn upon the presence or absence of a physical intrusion into any given enclosure.”417 Because the surveillance of Katz’s telephone calls had not been authorized by a magistrate, it was invalid; however, the Court thought that “it is clear that this surveillance was so narrowly circumscribed that a duly authorized magistrate, properly notified of the need for such investigation, specifically informed of the basis on which it was to proceed, and clearly apprised of the precise intrusion it would entail, could constitutionally have authorized, with appropriate safeguards, the very limited search and seizure that the government asserts in fact took place.”418 The notice requirement, which had loomed in Berger as an obstacle to successful electronic surveillance, was summarily disposed of.419 Finally, Justice Stewart observed that it was unlikely that electronic surveillance would ever come under any of the established exceptions so that it could be conducted without prior judicial approval.420

Following Katz, Congress enacted in 1968 a comprehensive statute authorizing federal officers and permitting state officers pursuant to state legislation complying with the federal law to seek warrants for electronic surveillance to investigate violations of prescribed classes of criminal legislation.421 The Court has not yet had occasion to pass on the federal statute and to determine whether its procedures and authorizations comport with the standards sketched in Osborn,Berger, and Katz or whether those standards are somewhat more flexible than they appear to be on the faces of the opinions.422

412 388 U.S. 41 (1967).

413 388 U.S. at 50–53.

414 388 U.S. at 58–60. Justice Stewart concurred because he thought that the affidavits in this case had not been sufficient to show probable cause, but he thought the statute constitutional in compliance with the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 68. Justice Black dissented, arguing that the Fourth Amendment was not applicable to electronic eavesdropping but that in any event the “search” authorized by the statute was reasonable. Id. at 70. Justice Harlan dissented, arguing that the statute with its judicial gloss was in compliance with the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 89. Justice White thought both the statute and its application in this case were constitutional. Id. at 107.

415 388 U.S. at 71, 113.

416 389 U.S. 347 (1967).

417 389 U.S. at 353. “We conclude that the underpinnings of Olmstead and Goldman have been so eroded by our subsequent decisions that the ‘trespass’ doctrine there enunciated can no longer be regarded as controlling. The Government’s activities in electronically listening to and recording the petitioner’s words violated the privacy upon which he justifiably relied while using the telephone booth and thus constituted a ‘search and seizure’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.”

418 389 U.S. at 354. The “narrowly circumscribed” nature of the surveillance was made clear by the Court in the immediately preceding passage. “[The Government agents] did not begin their electronic surveillance until investigation of the petitioner’s activities had established a strong probability that he was using the telephone in question to transmit gambling information to persons in other States, in violation of federal law. Moreover, the surveillance was limited, both in scope and in duration, to the specific purpose of establishing the contents of the petitioner’s unlawful telephonic communications. The agents confined their surveillance to the brief periods during which he used the telephone booth, and they took great care to overhear only the conversations of the petitioner himself.” Id. For similar emphasis upon precision and narrow circumscription, see Osborn v. United States, 385 U.S. 323, 329–30 (1966).

419 “A conventional warrant ordinarily serves to notify the suspect of an intended search . . . . In omitting any requirement of advance notice, the federal court . . . simply recognized, as has this Court, that officers need not announce their purpose before conducting an otherwise authorized search if such an announcement would provoke the escape of the suspect or the destruction of critical evidence.” 389 U.S. at 355 n.16.

420 389 U.S. at 357–58. Justice Black dissented, feeling that the Fourth Amendment applied only to searches for and seizures of tangible things and not conversations. Id. at 364. Two “beeper” decisions support the general applicability of the warrant requirement if electronic surveillance will impair legitimate privacy interests. Compare United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276 (1983) (no Fourth Amendment violation in relying on a beeper, installed without warrant, to aid in monitoring progress of a car on the public roads, since there is no legitimate expectation of privacy in destination of travel on the public roads), with United States v. Karo, 468 U.S. 705 (1984) (beeper installed without a warrant may not be used to obtain information as to the continuing presence of an item within a private residence).

421 Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 82 Stat. 211, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510–20.

422 The Court has interpreted the statute several times without reaching the constitutional questions. United States v. Kahn, 415 U.S. 143 (1974); United States v. Giordano, 416 U.S. 505 (1974); United States v. Chavez, 416 U.S. 562 (1974); United States v. Donovan, 429 U.S. 413 (1977); Scott v. United States, 436 U.S. 128 (1978); Dalia v. United States, 441 U.S. 238 (1979); United States v. New York Telephone Co., 434 U.S. 159 (1977); United States v. Caceres, 440 U.S. 741 (1979). Dalia supra, did pass on one constitutional issue, whether the Fourth Amendment mandated specific warrant authorization for a surreptitious entry to install an authorized “bug.” See also Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979) (no reasonable expectation of privacy in numbers dialed on one’s telephone, so Fourth Amendment does not require a warrant to install “pen register” to record those numbers).

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