Goldman v. United States

316 U.S. 129

Case Year: 1942

Case Ruling: 5-3, Affirmed

Opinion Justice: Roberts

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Black, Byrnes, Douglas, Reed


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Frankfurter

Joiner(s): Stone

1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Murphy


2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


Lawyers Martin Goldman and Jacob Shulman were involved in a complicated bankruptcy case. In the course of the proceedings, they approached Robert Hoffman, who represented one of the parties in the litigation, with a plan to defraud the creditors and reap significant profits. Hoffman expressed reluctance to engage in such activities. Instead he reported the scheme to the bankruptcy receiver and to federal authorities. The Justice Department asked Hoffman to play along with the plan so that they could gather evidence against Goldman and Shulman. He agreed to cooperate.

With the help of the building superintendent, federal agents accessed Shulman's office and an adjoining office. They installed a listening device in Shulman's office. The apparatus was connected to wires that went through the wall into the adjoining office where, through earphones, any conversations in Shulman's office could be overheard. This was done with knowledge that Goldman, Shulman, and Hoffman were going to have a meeting in Shulman's office the next day to discuss their plan. When the meeting started, three federal agents and a stenographer were in the adjoining office to overhear the conversations. The listening device, however, did not work.

To insure against this problem, the agents also had with them a detectaphone. This device, when attached to the wall of the adjoining office, was sufficiently powerful to pick up sound waves from Shulman's office and amplify the sounds so that the stenographer could transcribe the conversations occurring there. In using this device there was no need to enter or intrude on Shulman's office. The apparatus worked perfectly and the stenographer recorded the conspirators' discussions, as well as Shulman's words when he made telephone calls. The result was powerful evidence against the Goldman and Shulman, both of whom were indicted, convicted, and sentenced for violating the federal bankruptcy act. They appealed their convictions on the grounds that the evidence gathered by the detectaphone should have been excluded from the trial.



... We hold that what was heard by the use of the detectaphone was not made illegal by trespass or unlawful entry. The petitioners contend that the trespass committed in Shulman's office when the listening apparatus was there installed, and what was learned as the result of that trespass, was of some assistance on the following day in locating the receiver of the detectaphone in the adjoining office and this connection between the trespass and the listening resulted in a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Whatever trespass was committed was connected with the installation of the listening apparatus. As respects it, the trespass might be said to be continuing and, if the apparatus had been used it might, with reason, be claimed that the continuing trespass was the concomitant of its use. On the other hand, the relation between the trespass and the use of the detectaphone was that of antecedent and consequent. Both courts below have found that the trespass did not aid materially in the use of the detectaphone. Since we accept these concurrent findings, we need not consider a contention based on a denial of their verity.

We hold that the use of the detectaphone by Government agents was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In asking us to hold that the information obtained was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and that its use at the trial was, therefore, banned by the Amendment, the petitioners recognize that they must reckon with our decision in Olmstead v. United States. They argue that the case may be distinguished. The suggested ground of distinction is that the Olmsteadcase dealt with the tapping of telephone wires, and the court adverted to the fact that, in using a telephone, the speaker projects his voice beyond the confines of his home or office and, therefore, assumes the risk that his message may be intercepted. It is urged that where, as in the present case, one talks in his own office, and intends his conversation to be confined within the four walls of the room, he does not intend his voice shall go beyond those walls and it is not to be assumed he takes the risk of someone's use of a delicate detector in the next room. We think, however, the distinction is too nice for practical application of the Constitutional guarantee and no reasonable or logical distinction can be drawn between what federal agents did in the present case and state officers did in the Olmstead case. The petitioners ask us, if we are unable to distinguish Olmstead v. United States, to overrule it. This we are unwilling to do. That case was the subject of prolonged consideration by this court. The views of the court, and of the dissenting justices, were expressed clearly and at length. To rehearse and reappraise the arguments pro and con, and the conflicting views exhibited in the opinions, would serve no good purpose. Nothing now can be profitably added to what was there said. It suffices to say that we adhere to the opinion there expressed.

The judgments are affirmed.


Had a majority of the Court been willing at this time to overrule the Olmstead case, we should have been happy to join them. But as they have declined to do so, and as we think this case is indistinguishable in principle from Olmstead's, we have no occasion to repeat here the dissenting views in that case with which we agree.


I cannot agree for to me it is clear that the use of the detectaphone under the circumstances revealed by this record was an unreasonable search and seizure within the clear intendment of the Fourth Amendment. One of the great boons secured to the inhabitants of this country by the Bill of Rights is the right of personal privacy guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment....

The conditions of modern life have greatly expanded the range and character of those activities which require protection from intrusive action by Government officials if men and women are to enjoy the full benefit of that privacy which the Fourth Amendment was intended to provide. It is our duty to see that this historic provision receives a construction sufficiently liberal and elastic to make it serve the needs and manners of each succeeding generation.... Otherwise it may become obsolete, incapable of providing the people of this land adequate protection. To this end we must give mind not merely to the exact words of the Amendment but also to its historic purpose, its high political character, and its modern social and legal implications....

There was no physical entry in this case. But the search of one's home or office no longer requires physical entry, for science has brought forth far more effective devices for the invasion of a person's privacy than the direct and obvious methods of oppression which were detested by our forebears and which inspired the Fourth Amendment. Surely the spirit motivating the framers of that Amendment would abhor these new devices no less. Physical entry may be wholly immaterial. Whether the search of private quarters is accomplished by placing on the outer walls of the sanctum a detectaphone that transmits to the outside listener the intimate details of a private conversation, or by new methods of photography that penetrate walls or overcome distances, the privacy of the citizen is equally invaded by agents of the Government and intimate personal matters are laid bare to view. Such invasions of privacy, unless they are authorized by a warrant issued in the manner and form prescribed by the Amendment or otherwise conducted under adequate safeguards defined by statute, are at one with the evils which have heretofore been held to be within the Fourth Amendment and equally call for remedial action.

On the basis of the narrow, literal construction of the search and seizure clause of the Fourth Amendment adopted inOlmstead v. United States, Government officials could well believe that activities of the character here involved did not contravene the Constitutional mandate. But for my part, I think that the Olmstead case was wrong. The error of the stultifying construction there adopted is best shown by the results to which it leads. It is strange doctrine that keeps inviolate the most mundane observations entrusted to the permanence of paper but allows the revelation of thoughts uttered within the sanctity of private quarters, thoughts perhaps too intimate to be set down even in a secret diary, or indeed, utterances about which the common law drew the cloak of privilege--the most confidential revelations between husband and wife, client and lawyer, patient and physician, and penitent and spiritual adviser. Nor can I see any rational basis for denying to the modern means of communication the same protection that is extended by the Amendment to the sealed letter in the mails.... Officers conducting an unreasonable search are seeking evidence as such; the form it takes is of no concern to them....