Katz v. United States | 1967
National Constitution Center President & CEO
George Mason University Scalia Law School Nat'l Security Institue Founder & Adjunct Prof.
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  • Katz v. United States Full Program
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  • Unwarranted Search and Seizure
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  • Justice Harlan II Gets Sick
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Subject: Redefining Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
Case Decided:
December 18, 1967

Katz v. United States extended the Fourth Amendment's "unreasonable searches and seizures" protection to include recordings of conversations, not just personal effects. The Court held that wiretapping violated the privacy of the criminal defendant, Charles Katz -- privacy that he expected to have once entering a phone booth and closing the door.

Charles Katz was charged with placing illegal bets across state lines using a public telephone booth. Katz was able to be convicted after FBI agents placed a wire-tap on top of the public phone booth he was using without first obtaining a warrant. During his trial, Katz argued that the evidence presented against him was obtained illegally and that it violated his Fourth Amendment rights – "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses … against unreasonable searches and seizures."

After the case made its way to the Supreme Court, the Justices concluded that Katz's conversation was protected under the Fourth Amendment, meaning the FBI had indeed violated his rights in collecting its evidence against him. In delivering the opinion, Justice Potter Stewart wrote that the Fourth Amendment, "protects people, not places."

Key Players
Charles Katz
Charles Katz was a career gambler and the petitioner in Katz v. United States. Katz was charged with conducting illegal gambling operations across state lines in violation of federal law. Katz used a public phone booth to conduct his illegal gambling negotiations. In order to collect evidence against Katz, the FBI placed a tape recorder on top of the Los Angeles phone booth he used to place bets with associates in Boston and Miami. Katz argued the recording was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The Court of Appeals ruled against him and he appealed its decision to the Supreme Court. The Justices concluded Katz was entitled to Fourth Amendment privacy protection for his conversations.
Justice Potter Stewart
Potter Stewart (January 23, 1915 - December 7, 1985) was a lawyer and politician with a powerful Republican family background. He was known as an influential swing vote who helped shape American law. He delivered the majority opinion In Katz v. United States that overturned the Court of Appeals affirmation of the conviction. Justice Stewart stated that “The Fourth Amendment protects people, not places.”
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
Justice Hugo Black
Hugo Black (February 27, 1886 – September 25, 1971) was a politician and former Ku Klux Klan member that was eventually known for his civil rights rulings. He was a Supreme Court justice (1937 – 1971) and an advocate for the Fourteenth Amendment. Black was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first appointment to the Court.
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