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United States v. U.S. District Court - Significance

security government national surveillance

Affirmed the primacy of Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure in matters believed by the government to affect national security.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a turbulent period in American history. Resistance to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was at its peak, and many radical opponents of the war turned to violent means to express their discontent. Law enforcement bodies sought to counter social unrest by seeking increased freedom from judicial review in criminal investigations through measures such as the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. Although the act affirmed the necessity of judicial review of all electronic surveillance undertaken in criminal investigations per Katz v. United States (1967), it also stated in Title III that nothing " . . . contained in this chapter be deemed to limit the constitutional power of the President to take such measures as he deems necessary to protect the United States against overthrow of the Government by force or other unlawful means, or against any other clear and present danger to the structure or existence of the Government."

Against this backdrop of unrest and apparently broadened police powers, the United States brought criminal charges against well-known dissidents John Sinclair, Lawrence Plamondon, and John Forrest for conspiracy to destroy government property. Plamondon was also charged with the bombing of an office of the Central Intelligence Agency in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Some of the evidence used to bring the defendants to trial had been obtained by electronic surveillance without benefit of a warrant, and the defendants moved to compel the government to disclose selected surveillance information and to conduct a hearing to determine the admissibility of the surveillance data obtained without judicial approval. Their motion was sustained, and the government countered by petitioning for a writ of mandamus compelling the district judge to vacate his disclosure order. The government also obtained an affidavit from the U.S. attorney general stating that he had approved of the electronic surveillance of Plamondon and that the surveillance was lawful under the provisions of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act allowing the president to investigate without judicial oversight in cases of clear and present danger to the sovereignty of the United States. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on certiorari, and arguments were presented on 24 February 1972.

Government attorneys based their case on the national security provisions of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, maintaining that the surreptitious recording of the defendant's conversations was approved by the attorney general without consulting a neutral magistrate because the defendant's planned actions threatened national sovereignty. Furthermore, they asserted that disclosure to a magistrate of certain aspects of domestic surveillance could compromise security activities and " . . . create serious potential dangers to the national security and to the lives of informants and agents." Attorneys for Plamondon and the district court merely reasserted their contention that the evidence was illegally obtained and in fact tainted all other evidence legally gained in investigations surrounding the case.

In ruling against the United States in this case, the Court opted for a narrow view of the questions raised, stipulating that its decision in no way impacted the actions of national security personnel investigating activities of foreign nationals. Justice Powell, delivering the opinion of the Court, held that neither the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act nor the Fourth Amendment allow the warrantless interception of private communications. With regard to the influence of national security questions on Fourth Amendment rights, the Court maintained that:

Security surveillances are especially sensitive because of the inherent vagueness of the domestic security concept, the necessarily broad and continuing nature of intelligence gathering, and the temptation to utilize such surveillances to oversee political dissent. We recognize, as we have before, the constitutional basis of the President's domestic security role, but we think it must be exercised in a manner compatible with the Fourth Amendment.

The decision also implied that Title III, which covered criminal investigations, should not be applicable to domestic security matters, and suggested that Congress consider establishing standards of judicial oversight of domestic security investigations that would be "reasonable both in relation to the legitimate need of Government for intelligence information and the protected rights of our citizens." Finally, the Court asserted that use of approved warrant procedures could not be considered a threat to investigative operations or security.

The United States v. U.S. District Court case upheld and expanded the protection against unwarranted monitoring of electronic communications afforded by Katz v. United States. The decision closed the apparent loophole offered by Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act and mandated the acquisition of warrants from a neutral magistrate even by investigations seeking information on perceived threats to national security.

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