chapter  15
16 Pages

The Case of the High-Tech Bootlegger

Olmstead v. United States (1928)
WithMelvin I. Urofsky

In 1928 Justice Louis Brandeis tackled the question of a new technology—the telephone—and in doing so laid the basis for one of the most important constitutional developments of the twentieth century—the emergence of a right to privacy. Government agents had put a wiretap on the phones of a suspected bootlegger, gaining the information used to convict him of violating the Prohibition Act. Criminals quickly adapted the new technologies of telephones and automobiles to help them circumvent Prohibition. In Seattle, a police lieutenant named Roy Olmstead learned all about the bootlegging business while making arrests, and realized that the main problem of running an illegal business was lack of organization. The Seattle he returned to was, of course, suffering from the Great Depression, but little had changed in the bootlegging business other than that a new group of rumrunners supplied liquor to the citizenry.