On Lee v. United States, 343 U.S. 747 (1952)

2012-08-13 11:26:20

On Lee was working, while awaiting trial on a narcotics charge, at his laundry business in Hoboken, New Jersey. His old acquaintance, Chin Poy, entered and began a conversation with Lee. Unbeknownst to Lee, Poy was an ‘‘undercover agent’’ who was wired with a radio transmitter. During the course of the conversation in the laundry and later on the sidewalk, Lee made statements that were highly incriminating to himself. These statements, overheard by another officer via the radio transmitter, were later used to help convict Lee at trial.

The court of appeals affirmed the conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court found the analysis of the lower courts to be constitutional, holding that the conduct of the federal agents did not amount to a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Under the Court’s analysis, a trespass did not occurred because (1) Poy presumably entered the laundry with On Lee’s consent, and (2) the use of devices to overhear conversations is appropriate where entry onto the premises is legal. The Court went on to find that because there was no obstruction of ‘‘a communication facility’’ under the control of Lee, the Federal Communications Act had not been violated. The Court’s opinion was important in defining when exactly an unlawful trespass by government officers occurs, when courts should consider conversations overheard by devices to be unlawful, and under what circumstances a court might consider excluding admissible evidence that was obtained by government officers who acted beyond the bounds of lawful behavior.


References and Further Reading

  • Taslitz, Andrew E., and Margaret L. Paris. Constitutional Criminal Procedure. Los Angeles: Foundation Press, 2003.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • The Communications Act, Act of June 19, 1934, 48 Stat. 1064

See also Electronic Surveillance, Technology Monitoring, and Dog Sniffs; Search (General Definition); Wiretapping Laws