Alderman v. United States (394 U.S. 165)/Concurrence Harlan

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United States Supreme Court

394 U.S. 165

Alderman  v.  United States

 Argued: Oct. 14, 1968. --- Decided: Oct 14, 1968

Mr. Justice HARLAN, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

The Court's careful opinion is, I think, constructed on a faulty premise, which substantially undermines the validity of its ultimate conclusions. The majority confronts these cases as if each of the two major problems they raise can be solved in only one of two ways. The Court seems to assume that either the traditional standing doctrine is to be expanded or that the traditional doctrine is to be maintained. Again, it is assumed that either an in camera decision is to be made by the judge in every case or that there is to be an automatic turnover of all conversations in every case. I do not believe, however, that the range of choice open to us on either issue is restricted to the two alternatives the Court considers. On both issues, there is a third solution which would, in my view, more satisfactorily accommodate the competing interests at stake.


I am in substantial agreement with the reasons the Court has given for refusing to expand the traditional standing doctrine to permit a Fourth Amendment challenge to be raised by either a co-defendant or a co-conspirator. [1] But it does not follow from this that we may apply the traditional standing rules without further analysis. The traditional ules, as the majority correctly understands them, would grant standing with regard to (1) conversations in which the accused himself participated and (2) all conversations occurring on the accused's 'premises,' regardless of whether he participated in the particular conversation in any way. As I hope to show, the traditional rationale for this second rule-granting standing to the property owner-does not fit a case involving the infringement of conversational privacy. Moreover, no other persuasive rationale can be developed in support of the property owner's right to make a Fourth Amendment claim as to conversations in which he did not himself participate. Consequently, I would hold that, in the circumstances before us, standing should be granted only to those who actually participated in the conversation that has been illegally overheard.

There is a very simple reason why the traditional law of standing permits the owner of the premises to exclude a tangible object illegally seized on his property, despite the fact that he does not own the particular object taken by the police. Even though he does not have title to the object, the owner of the premises is in possession of it-and we have held that a property interest of even less substance is a sufficient predicate for standing under the Fourth Amendment. Jones v. United States, 362 U.S. 257, 80 S.Ct. 725, 4 L.Ed.2d 697 (1960). [2] This simple rationale does not, however, justify granting standing to the property owner with regard to third-party conversations. The absent property owner does not have a property interest of any sort in a conversation in which he did not participate. The words that were spoken are gone beyond recall. [3]

Consequently, in order to justify the traditional rule, one must argue, as does the majority, that the owner of the premises should be granted standing because the bugged third-party conversations are 'fruits' of the police's infringement of the owner's property rights. The 'fruits' theory, however, does not necessarily fit when the police overhear private conversations in violation of the Fourth Amendment. As Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 352-353, 88 S.Ct. 507, 511-512, 19 L.Ed.2d 576 (1967), squarely holds, the right to the privacy of one's conversation does not hinge on whether the Government has committed a technical trespass upon the premises on which the conversations took place. Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 48 S.Ct. 564, 72 L.Ed. 944 (1928), is no longer the law. If in fact there has been no trespass upon the premises, I do not understand how traditional theory permits the owner to complain if a conversation is overheard in which he did not participate. Certainly the owner cannot suppress records of such conversations on the ground that they are the 'fruits' of an unconstitutional invasion of his property rights. See Goldman v. United States, 316 U.S. 129, 135-136, 62 S.Ct. 993, 996-997, 86 L.Ed. 1322 (1942).

It is true, of course, that the 'fruits' theory would require a different result if the police used a listening device which did physically trespass upon the accused's premises. But the fact that this theory depends completely on the presence or absence of a technical trespass only serves to show that the entire theoretical basis of standing law must be reconsidered in the area of conversational privacy. For we have not buried Olmstead, so far as it dealt with the substance of Fourth Amendment rights, only to give it new life in the law of standing. Instead, we should reject traditional property concepts entirely, and reinterpret standing law in the light of the substantive principles developed in Katz. Standing should be granted to every person who participates in a conversation he legitimately expects will remain private-for it is such persons that Katz protects. [4] On the other hand, property owners should not be permitted to assert a Fourth Amendment claim in this area if we are to respect the principle, whose vitality the Court has now once again reaffirmed, which establishes 'the general rule that Fourth Amendment rights are personal rights which * * * may not be vicariously asserted.' Ante, at 174. For granting property owners standing does not permit them to vindicate intrusions upon their own privacy, but simply permits criminal defendants to intrude into the private lives of others.

The following hypothetical suggests the paradoxical quality of the Court's rule. Imagine that I own an office building and permit a friend of mine, Smith, to use one of the vacant offices without charge. Smith uses the office to have a private talk with a third person, Jones. The next day, I ask my friend to tell me what Jones had said in the office I had given him. Smith replies that the conversation was private, and that what was said was 'none of your business.' Can it be that I could properly feel aggrieved because the conversation occurred on my property? It would make no sense if I were to reply to Smith: 'My privacy has been infringed if you do not tell me what was said, for I own the property!' It is precisely the other way around-Smith is telling me that when he and Jones had talked together, they had a legitimate expectation that their conversation would remain secret, even from me as the property owner.

Now suppose that I had placed a listening device in the office I had given to Smith, without telling him. Could anyone doubt that I would be guilty of an outrageous violation of the privacy of Smith and Jones if I then listened to what they had said? It would be ludicrous to defend my conduct on the ground that I, after all, was the owner of the office building. The case does not stand differently if I am accused of a crime and demand the right to hear the Smith-Jones conversation which the police had monitored. The Government doubtless has violated the privacy of Smith and Jones, but their privacy would be violated further if the conversation were also made available to me. [5]

In the field of conversational privacy, the Fourth Amendment protects persons, not places. See Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 351, 88 S.Ct. 507, 511, 19 L.Ed.2d 576 (1967). And a man can only be in one place at one time. If the privacy of his conversation is respected at that place, he may engage in all those activities for which that privacy is an essential prerequisite. His privacy is not at all disturbed by the fact that other people in other places cannot speak without the fear of being overheard. That fact may be profoundly disturbing to the man whose privacy remains intact. But it remains a fact about other people's privacy. To permit a criminal defendant to complain about such intrusions is to permit the vicarious assertion of Fourth Amendment rights-a step which I decline to take in relation to property owners for much the same reasons as those which have impelled the Court to deny standing to coconspirators.

In rejecting the 'property' rule advanced by the Court, I do not mean to suggest that standing may never properly be granted to permit the vicarious assertion of Fourth Amendment rights. While it is arguable that an individual should be permitted to raise a constitutional claim when the privacy of members of his family has been violated, I need not reach this question on the facts of the cases before us. It must be noted, however, that even if this Court recognized a man's right to protest whenever the privacy of his family was infringed, the lines the majority draws today would still seem extremely arbitrary. Under the prevailing 'property' rule, for example, a husband generally cannot complain if the police overhear his wife talking at her office or in a public phone booth, cf. Katz v. United States, supra, although he can complain when the police overhear her talking at home. Yet surely the husband's interest in his wife's privacy is equally worthy of respect in all three cases. If standing is to be extended to protect a person's interest in his family's privacy, an individual should be permitted to make a constitutional claim whenever a family member's reasonable expectation of privacy has been infringed, regardless of the place where his privacy was invaded. Indeed, the Court's emphasis on property ownership could well mean that a husband, as owner of a particular property, is entitled to complain as to a violation of his wife's privacy, but that the wife could not complain as to the unlawful surveillance of her husband since she did not have a sufficiently substantial interest in the property on which the intrusion occurred. In contrast, if a perfect stranger is overheard on one's property, standing is established. In sum, I simply cannot discern a coherent policy behind the Court's solicitude for property interests in this area.

The Court's lengthy discussion of my position loses sight of the basic justification for the narrower standing rule I have advanced. To recapitulate, it is my central aim to show that the right to conversational privacy is a personal right, not a property right. It follows from this that the Court's rule permits property owners to assert vicariously the personal rights of others. Indeed, granting standing to property owners compromises the personal privacy of others.

The Court's response seems to be that the Fourth Amendment protects 'houses' as well as 'persons.' But this is simply to treat private conversations as if they were pieces of tangible property. Since an individual cannot carry his possessions with him wherever he goes, the Fourth Amendment protects a person's 'house' so that his personal possessions may be kept out of the Government's easy reach. In contrast, a man must necessarily carry his voice around with him, and cannot leave it at home even if he wishes. When a man is not at home, he cannot converse there. There is thus no need to protect a man's 'house' in order to protect his right to engage in private conversation. Consequently, the Court has not increased the scope of an accused's personal privacy by holding that the police have unconstitutionally invaded his 'house' by putting a 'bug' there. Houses do not speak; only people do. The police have violated only the privacy of those persons whose conversations are overheard.

I entirely agree, however, that if the police see a person's tangible property while committing their trespass, they may not constitutionally use this knowledge either to obtain a search warrant or to gain a conviction. Since a man has no choice but to leave the bulk of his physical possessions in his 'house,' the Fourth Amendment must protect his 'house' in this way or else the immunity of his personal possessions from arbitrary search could not be assured. Thus if an individual's personal possessions are to be protected at all, they must be protected in his house; but a person's private conversations are protected as much as is possible when he can complain as to any conversation in which he personally participated. To go further and protect other conversations occurring on his property is simply to give the householder the right to complain as to the Government's treatment of others.

While the Court grants special standing rights to property owners, it refuses to reach the question whether employees, business visitors, social guests, and other persons with less substantial property interests are also entitled to special standing privileges. Yet this question will be presented to the District Court on remand in the Alderisio case, [6] and it will doubtless be an issue in many of the other cases now on our docket which we will remand for reconsideration in the light of our decision today. While a definitive solution to this problem is obviously premature, the Court's failure to give the lower courts any guidance whatever on this point will result in widespread confusion as trial judges throughout the land attempt to divine the rationale behind the property rule established today. Confusion will be compounded by our own past decisions which have decisively rejected the notion that the accused must necessarily have a possessory interest in the premises before he may assert a Fourth Amendment claim. See United States v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48, 72 S.Ct. 93, 96 L.Ed. 59 (1951); Jones v. United States, 362 U.S. 257, 80 S.Ct. 725, 4 L.Ed.2d 697 (1960); Mancusi v. DeForte, 392 U.S. 364, 88 S.Ct. 2120, 20 L.Ed.2d 1154 (1968). But it will not do simply to incorporate the standing law developed in those cases in an effort to solve the problem before us. For our past decisions involved situations in which the police search was directed against the individual seeking to invoke the Fourth Amendment. Here, however, the question is whether an individual may hea the conversations of third parties. [7] If, for example, it develops at the hearing that petitioner Alderisio simply had a bare right to remain on the business premises that were bugged, cf. Jones v. United States, supra, it surely could not be argued that his privacy had been infringed even though he had not been personally involved in any of the conversations that had been overheard. The Court seems duty bound to make at least this much clear. [8]


While I would hold that property owners have no right as such to hear conversations in which they were not participants, it appears to me that at a minimum the Court should adopt the Government's suggested judicial screening procedure with regard to third-party conversations. Property owners should not be permitted to intrude into the private lives of others unless a trial judge determines that the conversation at issue is at least arguably relevant to the pending prosecution.

On the other hand, I would agree that in the typical case, the prosecution should be required to hand over the records of all conversations in which the accused played a part. Since the other parties to these conversations knew they were talking to the accused, they can hardly have an important interest in concealing from him what they said to him. Whatever risk of unauthorized disclosure is involved may generally be minimized even further by the issuance of appropriate protective orders. Fed.Rule Crim.Proc. 16(e).

There is, however, at least one class of cases is which the standard considerations do not apply. I refer to the situations exemplified by Ivanov and Butenko, in which the defendant is charged, under one statute or another, with spying for a foreign power. In contrast to the typical situation, here the accused may learn important new information even if the turnover is limited to conversations in which he was a participant. For example, he may learn the location of a listening device-a fact that may be of crucial significance in espionage work. Moreover, he will be entitled to learn this fact even though a valid warrant has subsequently been issued authorizing electronic surveillance at the same location. Similarly, the accused may find out that the United States has obtained certain information that his foreign government believes is still secret, even when our Government has also received this information from an independent source in a constitutional way. And he may learn that those in whom he has been reposing confidence are in fact American undercover agents.

Even more important, there is much less reason to believe that a protective court order will effectively deter the defendant in an espionage case from turning over the new information he has received to those who are not entitled to it. For in an espionage case, the defendant is someone the grand jury has found is likely to have passed secrets to a foreign power. It is one thing to believe that the normal criminal defendant will refuse to pass on information if threatened with severe penalties for unauthorized disclosure. It is quite a different thing to believe that a defendant who is probably a spy will not pass on to the foreign power any additional information he has received.

Moreover, apart from the sense of fair play of most judges, additional safeguards could be devised which would assure that an in camera procedure would be used only when an unauthorized disclosure presents a substantial risk to the national security. As in the somewhat analogous situation in which the Government attempts to invoke a national security privilege in a civil action in order to trigger an in camera proceeding, there should 'be a formal claim of privilege, lodged by the head of the department which has control over the matter, after actual personal consideration by that officer.' United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1, 7-8, 73 S.Ct. 528, 532, 97 L.Ed. 727 (1953). Indeed, I would go even further than did the Court in Reynolds and lay upon trial judges the affirmative duty of assuring themselves that the national security interests claimed to justify an in camera proceeding are real and not merely colorable.

The Court's failure to consider the special characteristics of the Ivanov and Butenko cases is particularly surprising in the light of the reasons it gives for creating an absolute rule in favor of an automatic turnover. For the majority properly recognizes that its preference for a full adversary hearing cannot be justified by an easy reference to an absolute principle condemning in camera judicial decisions in all situations. Indeed, this Court has expressly authorized the use of such procedures in closely related areas involving the vindication of Fourth Amendment rights. See Roviaro v. United States, 353 U.S. 53, 77 S.Ct. 623, 1 L.Ed.2d 639 (1957); McCray v. Illinois, 386 U.S. 300, 309-313, 87 S.Ct. 1056, 1061-1064, 18 L.Ed.2d 62 (1967). If, as the Court rightly states, the propriety of an in camera screening procedure is a 'matter of judgment,' ante, at 182, depending on an informed consideration of all the competing factors, I do not understand why the trial judge should not be authorized to consider whether the accused simply cannot be trusted to keep the Government's records confidential. Nor do I understand why the Government must be confronted with the choice of dismissing the indictment or disclosing the information because the accused cannot be counted on to keep faith with the Court. [9] Moreover, it is not difficult to imagine cases in which the danger of unauthorized disclosure of important information would clearly outweigh the risk that an error may be made by the trial judge in determining whether a particular conversation is arguably relevant to the pending prosecution. It may well be, for example, that the number of conversations at issue is very small. Yet though the Court itself recognizes that 'the need for adversary inquiry is increased by the complexity of the issues presented for adjudication,' ante, at 184, it nevertheless leaves no room for an informed decision by the trial judge that the risk of error on the facts of a given case is insubstantial. Since the number of espionage cases is small, there is no chance whatever that these decisions will be made in a hurried fashion or that they will not be subjected to the most searching scrutiny on appeal. Of course, if any of the conversations should be found arguably relevant, their disclosure should be required before the prosecution is permitted to continue.

In sum, I would require the Government to turn over to Alderman and Alderisio only the records of those conversations in which each defendant participated, and I would leave the way open for a preliminary in camera screening procedure in the Ivanov and Butenko cases.


  1. I also am unable to accept my Brother FORTAS' suggestion that standing be accorded to any defendant who can show that an illegal search or seizure was directed against him. As my Brother FORTAS himself recognizes in stopping short of an extreme position that rejects all standing limitations, a proper decision on this issue cannot only consider the fact that a broadened standing rule may add marginally to the impact of the exclusionary rule on unconstitutional police conduct. Rather, one must also consider that my Brother FORTAS' rule permits a defendant to invade the privacy of others to hear conversations in which he did not participate. Moreover, the rule would entail very substantial administrative difficulties. In the majority of cases, I would imagine that the police plant a bug with the expectation that it may well produce leads to a large number of crimes. A lengthy hearing would, then, appear to be necessary in order to determine whether the police knew of an accused's criminal activity at the time the bug was planted and whether the police decision to plant a bug was motivated by an effort to obtain information against the accused or some other individual. I do not believe that this administrative burden is justified in any substantial degree by the hypothesized marginal increase in Fourth Amendment protection.
  2. The Court suggests, ante, at 177, n. 10, that I am wrong in finding that the traditional grant of standing to the property owner may properly be grounded on the simple fact of the owner's dominion over all physical objects on his premises. The majority argues that even though a particular object (say a packet of narcotics) is not described in a valid search warrant, it may nevertheless be seized if the police find the narcotics in their search for the other evidence of crime. It follows from this, says the Court, that the householder's possessory interest in the seized property is not a sufficient basis for standing. But this argument ignores the fact that an accused may have standing to raise a Fourth Amendment claim and yet lose on the merits. In the case the Court hypothesizes, the householder has standing because he has lost possession of an object formerly under his control. However, he loses on the merits because the police seizure was reasonable under the circumstances.
  3. Thus, unlike the Court, I find it quite easy to distinguish 'between the situation where a document belonging to a third party and containing his own words is seized from the premises of another without a warrant and the situation where the third party's words are spoken and overheard by electronic surveillance.' Ante, at 179, n. 11. While the absent owner can read the document when he returns to his home, he cannot summon back the words that were spoken in his absence. In the one case, the owner is personally aggrieved by the police action; in the other case, he is not.
  4. It seems clear that, under the Katz rationale, a person is personally aggrieved by electronic surveillance not only when he is actually speaking but also when he is listening to the confidences of others.
  5. This is not to say, of course, that the property owner could not bring a civil action to have the illegal listening device removed from his premises. He simply could not hear what the listening device had recorded, if none of his own conversations had been overheard.
  6. As the Court points out, ante, at 168, n. 1, the Government denies that electronic surveillance took place on property owned by Alderisio. Rather, the premises were owned either by firms which employed Alderisio or by 'business associates.'
  7. I have not thought it necessary to deal with the subsidiary question of the standing of any of these petitioners to challenge at trial any evidence submitted against them that is alleged to be a fruit of a bugged conversation in which they participated. I agree that this is a question that should be left to the District Court for determination in the first instance at the hearing on remand.
  8. As the Court's justification of its 'property' rule seems to center exclusively on the right of homeowners to protest intrusions into their homes it may well be that the rights of owners of business premises should be stringently limited.
  9. It would not, however, go so far as my Brother FORTAS, who would appear to require an in camera proceeding in any case in which the Government claims that a turnover would be prejudicial to the national security. I believe that this special procedure is only justified when the accused has been indicted for his espionage activities, indicating that he has probably passed records to a foreign power.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).