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United States v. United States Dist. Court - 407 U.S. 297, 92 S. Ct. 2125 (1972)


Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act ("Act"), 18 U.S.C.S. §§ 2510-2520, authorizes the use of electronic surveillance for classes of crimes carefully specified in 18 U.S.C.S. § 2516. Such surveillance is subject to prior court order. Section 2518 sets forth the detailed and particularized application necessary to obtain such an order, as well as carefully circumscribed conditions for its use. The Act represents a comprehensive attempt by Congress to promote more effective control of crime while protecting the privacy of individual thought and expression. Much of Title III has been drawn to meet the constitutional requirements for electronic surveillance.


Petitioner United States charged three defendants with conspiracy to destroy Government property in violation of 18 U.S.C.S. § 371. One of them, defendant Plamondon, was charged with the dynamite bombing of an office of a Central Intelligence Agency in Michigan. In the proceedings in federal district court, defendants filed a pretrial motion for disclosure of electronic surveillance information and for a hearing to determine whether that information "tainted" the evidence on which the indictment was based. The Government acknowledged that its agents had overheard conversations in which Plamondon had participated, but claimed that the surveillances, though warrantless, were lawful as a reasonable exercise of presidential power to protect the national security. The district court, holding that the surveillances violated the Fourth Amendment, issued an order for disclosure of the overheard conversations. The Government then filed in the court of appeals a petition for a writ of mandamus to set aside the district court's order; the court appeals affirmed the district court's order. The Government was granted a writ of certiorari.


Was judicial approval needed before initiation by the Government of a search or surveillance in domestic security cases?




Upon writ of certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the appellate court's decision. The Court ruled that the Government's duty to safeguard domestic security must be weighed against the potential danger that unreasonable surveillances posed to individual privacy and free expression. Moreover, the Court ruled, the freedoms of the Fourth Amendment could not properly be guaranteed if domestic security surveillances were conducted solely within the discretion of the Executive Branch without the detached judgment of a neutral magistrate. Thus, the Court ruled, the Government's security concerns did not justify departure from the customary requirement of judicial approval prior to initiation of a search or surveillance. Prior judicial approval was required for the type of domestic security surveillance involved in the present case.

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