Hoffa v. United States, 385 U.S. 293 (1966)

2012-07-11 19:45:58

‘‘The risk of being overheard by an eavesdropper or betrayed by an informer . . . is probably inherent in the conditions of human society. It is the kind of risk we necessarily assume whenever we speak.’’ Notorious union leader Jimmy Hoffa assumed that risk by telling another Teamsters official, Edward Partin, his plans to influence a federal criminal jury. Hoffa did not know that Partin was a paid government informant.

In a six-to-one decision, the Supreme Court held that criminal defendants have no constitutionally protected interest in a conversation with a secret government informant. Despite the government’s obtaining the same information that would otherwise be available through a ‘‘bug,’’ thus requiring a warrant, the Court found that one necessarily assumes the risk that friends may become traitors.

Dismissing Hoffa’s attack on the use of government informants generally, the Court noted that informants often provide essential evidence that otherwise may be difficult or impossible to obtain. Because this information is voluntarily given by suspects, the Court dismissed the idea that such statements are coerced. Additionally, although informants may have motives to lie (such as monetary rewards or promises of leniency in prosecution), vigorous crossexamination is an adequate remedy.

Hoffa paved the way for ‘‘surreptitious recording’’ of such conversations between government informants and suspects. If the informant can testify without a constitutional violation, then it follows that a recording of the conversation (more accurate than an informant’s memory) should also be admissible.


References and Further Reading

  • Kamin, Sam, The Private is Public: The Relevance of Private Actors in Defining the Fourth Amendment, 46 Boston College Law Review (2004): 83.
  • Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967).
  • United States v. White, 401 U.S. 745 (1971).

See also Electronic Surveillance, Technology Monitoring, and Dog Sniffs; Wiretapping Laws