History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  Olmstead v. United States: The Constitutional Challenges of Prohibition Enforcement — Historical Background and Documents
Media Coverage and Public Debates

The Olmstead case went from 1924 to 1928, the middle period of the United States’ experience with national Prohibition. The case began after the early optimism that Prohibition would better the nation had faded, but it came before the movement for repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment had gathered steam. The case was thus part of the debate over the effects of Prohibition on government, law, and society.

At the time, questions of government corruption were the key issue of the case, while for latter-day commentators the concerns about privacy and over active government were central. The case exemplified the worries, intensified by alcohol Prohibition, over the corruption of government and police. Much of the Seattle newspapers’ coverage of the case focused on the questions of police and government corruption. In the year of the trial, for example, the weekly newspaper the Argus, which had always opposed Prohibition, decried the corruption of the Seattle police and the regime of Mayor Edwin J. Brown. As much as the Argus deprecated the social cost of corruption it also recognized the futility of attempting to enforce the Prohibition law. The Argus ran an editorial on the Hearst newspaper chain’s attempt to poll Americans as to whether they supported the Prohibition law, and the paper was happy to report that public opinion was running strongly against Prohibition.

A year later, when the leading federal enforcers were on trial for corruption, the Seattle Daily Times, which strongly supported Prohibition at its onset, continued to be worried about the corruption of government. In this middle period of Prohibition, corruption and crime became the staples of discussion about Prohibition. Some advocated harsher penalties, and indeed such penalties came with the passage of the Jones “5 and 10” law of 1930, named after Washington Senator Wesley L. Jones. The law raised federal penalties for violating Prohibition to up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines. Others advocated stricter enforcement of Prohibition or called for a modification of Prohibition, such as permitting the sale of beer and wine, or for a repeal of the system.

In 1931, Roy Olmstead left prison, prompting the Seattle Post Intelligencer to assess his career and subsequent events. The extraordinary effort of the government to put him out of business only resulted in his replacement by others. Prohibition continued to corrupt, and the solution, the paper thought, lay in changing the law. Thus the Olmstead case was part of the debate about corruption, government power, and privacy, which filtered into the debate about improving or repealing Prohibition.

"Police Protection for Bootleggers," The Argus (1926)
"A Judicial Farce," The Argus (1926)
"The Occasion Has Passed," Seattle Daily Times (1927)


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