Berger v. New York, 388 U.S. 41 (1967)

2011-11-29 09:17:24

Berger v. New York addressed questions pertaining to the Fourth Amendment. This decision overruled the precedent set by Olmstead v. United States. This precedent established in 1928 held that a wiretap was not included in the protections of the Fourth Amendment because there was no seizure of a tangible object. Berger addressed this question many decades later when wiretapping was common and new technologies were being introduced.

The petitioner, Ralph Berger, was convicted of conspiracy to bribe the chairman of the New York State Liquor Authority in attempts to obtain a liquor license for a controversial arena. The charges were based on a conversation overheard on a series of telephone wiretaps placed by the District Attorney of New York County. New York State law allowed wiretaps to be placed to obtain evidence if there were reasonable grounds for suspecting evidence of a crime could be obtained. The order to place a wiretap had to specify the person whose telephone conversations were being tapped and the phone number where the wiretap was to be placed. The order would be valid for two months. Berger appealed the decision of the New York Court to the Supreme Court based on the protections of the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court found the New York statute to be too broad and reversed the ruling against Berger. The Court held that authorities must have ‘‘probable cause’’ to obtain evidence of this nature. Authorities would have to specify the crime, place to be searched, and the conversations that needed to be seized. This decision did not seek to end electronic surveillance since it was deemed an acceptable investigation method; rather it sought to apply more supervision to this type of surveillance. After this ruling, conversations were granted the full legal protections of the Fourth Amendment.


References and Further Reading

  • Pollack, Harriet, and Alexander Smith. Civil Liberties and Civil Rights in the United States. St. Paul, MN: West, 1978
  • Powe, Lucas. The Warren Court and American Politics. London: Belknap, 2000

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928) 

See also Electronic Surveillance, TechnologicalMonitoring, and Dog Sniffs; Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967); Search (General Definition); Wiretapping Laws