History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  Olmstead v. United States: The Constitutional Challenges of Prohibition Enforcement — Historical Background and Documents
The Judicial Process: A Chronology

February 1, 1920
National Prohibition of intoxicating liquor went into effect under the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act.

March 22, 1920
Federal Prohibition agents apprehended Roy Olmstead and a number of men unloading a boatload of smuggled Canadian liquor.

Mid-June 1924
Federal agents began to tap Roy Olmstead’s phones.

October 6, 1924
Canadian officials captured an Olmstead boat smuggling liquor contrary to the laws of Canada and the United States.

November 17–18, 1924
Federal agents raided and seized records from Roy Olmstead’s home and office and from the office of Jerry Finch.

January 19, 1925
A grand jury of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington returned conspiracy indictments naming ninety-one individuals.

April 23, 1925
Judge Jeremiah Neterer in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington refused to grant the defendants’ plea of abatement filed by Jerry Finch.

May 13, 1925
Judge Neterer refused to grant Finch’s request to drop the indictments, which Finch claimed charged the defendants multiple times for the same offence. Finch also argued that the indictments were insufficient in that they did not charge particular defendants with particular acts.

May 25, 1925
Defendants pleaded not guilty.

September 21, 1925
Judger Neterer rejected the Fourth and Fifth Amendment challenges to the indictments.

November 26, 1925
Federal agents again caught Roy Olmstead smuggling liquor.

January 19, 1926
The trial opened in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington before Judge Jeremiah Neterer with only forty-seven defendants present. The government dismissed indictments against four on the eve of the trial in exchange for testimony or information.

February 10, 1926
The prosecution rested its case, and the court dismissed seventeen more defendants on the motion of the government. At the same time, two conspiracy charges were dropped by the prosecutors.

February 16, 1926
The defense rested its case. By this point only twenty-nine defendants remained since the exclusion of some evidence forced the government to drop charges against some defendants.

February 18, 1926
Judge Neterer sent the case to the jury, which deliberated for six hours over two days.

February 20, 1926
The jury convicted twenty-one defendants and acquitted eight. Among the convicted were Roy Olmstead and Jerry Finch.

March 8, 1926
Judge Neterer sentenced the convicted.

May 9, 1927
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Olmstead’s appeal of his conviction. Judge William Gilbert in his opinion for the court upheld the use of the wiretapped evidence, while in dissent Judge Frank Rudkin focused on invasion of privacy by government officers.

November 16–17, 1927
Olmstead was tried and acquitted on a federal liquor smuggling case stemming from his arrest in November 1925.

November 21, 1927
The Supreme Court denied petitions for certiorari in Olmstead and companion cases.

November 29, 1927
Olmstead, Finch, and others entered prison.

January 9, 1928
The Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari in Olmstead and companion cases on an application for rehearing.

February 20–21, 1928
Olmstead and companion cases were argued in the U.S. Supreme Court. The arguments were limited to Fourth and Fifth Amendment questions raised by the wiretapping.

June 4, 1928
The Supreme Court announced its decision in the case. In a five-to-four decision, the Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Taft, upheld the decision of the court of appeals, finding that there was no real search of Olmstead’s home or office, that the phone conversations were not the equivalent of a sealed letter, and that wiretap evidence did not need to be excluded. In addition, since the Fourth Amendment was not violated, the Fifth Amendment did not apply.

May 12, 1931
Olmstead released from prison.

December 5, 1933
Twenty-First Amendment adopted repealing the Eighteenth Amendment.

June 19, 1934
Passage of Federal Communications Act, which would be construed to prohibit wiretapping by federal agents without warrants.

December 25, 1935
Roy Olmstead granted a full presidential pardon.


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