Katz v. United States


Katz was arrested after FBI agents overheard him making illegal gambling bets while in a public phone booth. The agents placed electronic listening and recording devices to the outside of the booth and only heard and recorded Katz’s end of the conversations.

Procedural History

At trial, Katz objected to the introduction of evidence of the telephone conversation. However, the trial court allowed the evidence. The appellate court upheld the conviction, holding that Katz’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures was not infringed upon because the agents never physically entered the phone booth. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court.


Did the government violate Katz’s Fourth Amendment rights when its agents attached electronic listening and recording devices to the outside of the phone booth?


Katz argued that the telephone booth was a constitutionally protected area and the FBI violated his right to privacy by attaching the bugs to the phone booth. The government argued that it did not violate Katz’s right to privacy because none of the agents invaded the booth before performing the search and/or seizure.


Yes, the government violated Katz’s right to privacy. Reversed.


The Court stated that both parties had formulated the issue incorrectly. Instead of asking whether a telephone booth can characterized as a “constitutionally protected area,” the proper question is whether electronically listening to and recording Katz’s conversation violated his right to privacy.

The Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment right to privacy protects people, not places. Previous case law held that in order for the right to privacy to be violated, the government had to infringe upon tangible property. In Warden v. Hayden, another 1967 case, the Court discredited the “trespass doctrine,” which held that property interests no longer controlled the government’s right to search and seizures.

In the instant case, the government contended that Katz’s use of a see-through booth meant that he was still just as visible inside the booth as outside of it. However, the Court noted that Katz was not trying to get away from the “intruding eye,” instead, he was fleeing the “uninvited ear.” His use of a glass phone booth with a closed door did not publicize his conversation, only his appearance. The FBI agents did not have a warrant and thus did not have to confine their investigation within the confines of a warrant. Even though the agents restrained themselves and did not unnecessarily invade Katz’s privacy, they solely based their actions on their belief that Katz would return to the same pay phone and the same time every day to make illegal gambling bets. The Court reiterated that the U.S. Constitution requires the impartial judgment of a judicial officer to stand between citizens and the police. Because searches conducted without judicial process are per se unreasonable, this case was REVERSED.

Justice HARLAN concurred, stating that Fourth Amendment questions followed a two-part test: (1) whether there is an actual, subjective expectation of privacy; and (2) whether the expectation is objectively reasonable.

Justice BLACK dissented, noting that it was not the Court’s role to rewrite the Fourth Amendment to remove the limitation to tangible property. He stated that a warrant cannot be obtained regarding a future conversation, as the police would not be able to describe such a conversation in the warrant application.

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