Law School Case Brief
Burdeau v. McDowell - 256 U.S. 465, 41 S. Ct. 574 (1921)
The Fourth Amendment gives protection against unlawful searches and seizures, and its protection applies to governmental action. Its origin and history clearly show that it is intended as a restraint upon the activities of sovereign authority, and is not intended to be a limitation upon other than governmental agencies; as against such authority it is the purpose of the Fourth Amendment to secure the citizen in the right of unmolested occupation of his dwelling and the possession of his property, subject to the right of seizure by process duly issued.
Petitioner J. C. McDowell filed an action in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania requesting an order for the return to him of certain books, papers, memoranda, correspondence, and other data in the possession of Appellant Joseph A. Burdeau, Special Assistant to the Attorney General of the United States. According to Petitioner, the items were unlawfully seized and stolen from him by persons participating in and furthering a proposed investigation to be made by a grand jury. The government sought review of the district court judgment, which held that, even though it did not appear that the government had anything to do with the abstraction of the items, it could not use stolen property after demand was made for its return.
Could the government use the items in question to prosecute an offense after demand was made for the return of the same?
On appeal, the United States Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the district court, holding that there was no reason why the government could not hold the items for use in prosecuting an offense because the items were of an incriminating nature and there was no violation of the owner's rights by governmental authority. The Court further held that there was no violation of the Fourth or Fifth Amendments because the items were not taken by the government.
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