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Law School Case Brief

Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States - 251 U.S. 385, 40 S. Ct. 182 (1920)


The essence of a provision forbidding the acquisition of evidence in a certain way is that not merely evidence so acquired shall not be used before a court but that it shall not be used at all. Of course this does not mean that the facts thus obtained become sacred and inaccessible. If knowledge of them is gained from an independent source they may be proved like any others, but the knowledge gained by the government's own wrong cannot be used by it to seek by subpoena evidence to be used in a criminal prosecution and to obtain an order commanding compliance with such subpoena.


An indictment was brought against Frederick Silverthorne and his father, the owners of Silverthorne Lumber Company (Lumber), on a single charge. After the Silverthornes were arrested at their homes, the government held them in custody. Meanwhile, federal law enforcement officials, without any legal authority, went to Lumber's office and obtained books, papers, and documents. An application was made for a return of what had been taken. The United States made photographs and copies of material papers and framed a new indictment based upon the knowledge they obtained. The district court ordered return of the originals but impounded the photographs and copies. The subpoenas to produce the originals were served. Although the district court found that all the papers were seized in violation of the Silverthornes' constitutional rights, it ordered them to comply with the subpoenas. The Silverthornes sought review of the judgment.


Could the Government issue valid subpoenas on the basis of knowledge obtained from an unlawful search and seizure?




On appeal, the United States Supreme Court overturned the district court's judgment. Because the government had obtained the company papers by illegal means, the government could not use the knowledge gained from its wrong to frame a new indictment and use the evidence in a prosecution. The Court noted that such use of the knowledge gained from unlawful means would reduce the Fourth Amendment to a mere "form of words."

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