United States v. United States District Court/Concurrence White

United States v. United States District Court by Byron White
Concurring Opinion
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Concurring Opinions

MR. JUSTICE WHITE, concurring in the judgment.

This case arises out of a two-count indictment charging conspiracy to injure and injury to Government property. Count I charged Robert Plamondon and two codefendants with conspiring with a fourth person to injure Government property with dynamite. Count II charged Plamondon alone with dynamiting and injuring Government property in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The defendants moved to compel the United States to disclose, among other things, any logs and records of electronic surveillance directed at them, at unindicted coconspirators, or at any premises of the defendants or coconspirators. They also moved for a hearing to determine whether any electronic surveillance disclosed had tainted the evidence on which the grand jury indictment was based and which the Government intended to use at trial. They asked for dismissal of the indictment if such taint were determined to exist. Opposing the motion, the United States submitted an affidavit of the Attorney General of the United States disclosing that

[t]he defendant Plamondon has participated in conversations which were overheard by Government agents who were monitoring wiretaps which were being employed to gather intelligence information deemed necessary to protect the nation from attempts of domestic organizations to attack and subvert the existing structure of the Government,

the wiretaps having been expressly approved by the Attorney General. The records of the intercepted conversations and copies of the memorandum reflecting the Attorney General's approval were submitted under seal, and solely for the Court's in camera inspection. [1] [p336]

As characterized by the District Court, the position of the United States was that the electronic monitoring of Plamondon's conversations without judicial warrant was a lawful exercise of the power of the President to safeguard the national security. The District Court granted the motion of defendants, holding that the President had no constitutional power to employ electronic surveillance without warrant to gather information about domestic organizations. Absent probable cause and judicial authorization, the challenged wiretap infringed Plamondon's Fourth Amendment rights. The court ordered the Government to disclose to defendants the records of the monitored conversations and directed that a hearing be held to determine the existence of taint either in the indictment or in the evidence to be introduced at trial.

The Government's petition for mandamus to require the District Court to vacate its order was denied by the Court of Appeals. 444 F.2d 651 (CA6 1971). That court held that the Fourth Amendment barred warrantless electronic surveillance of domestic organizations even if at the direction of the President. It agreed with the District Court that, because the wiretaps involved were therefore constitutionally infirm, the United States must turn over to defendants the records of overheard conversations for the purpose of determining whether the Government's evidence was tainted.

I would affirm the Court of Appeals, but on the statutory ground urged by defendant respondents (Brief 115) without reaching or intimating any views with respect [p337] to the constitutional issue decided by both the District Court and the Court of Appeals.

Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510-2520, forbids, under pain of criminal penalties and civil actions for damages, any wiretapping or eavesdropping not undertaken in accordance with specified procedures for obtaining judicial warrants authorizing the surveillance. Section 2511(1) establishes a general prohibition against electronic eavesdropping "[e]xcept as otherwise specifically provided" in the statute. Later sections provide detailed procedures for judicial authorization of official interceptions of oral communications; when these procedures are followed, the interception is not subject to the prohibitions of § 2511(1). Section 2511(2), however, specifies other situations in which the general prohibitions of § 2511(1) do not apply. In addition, § 2511(3) provides that:

Nothing contained in this chapter or in section 605 of the Communications Act of 1934 (48 Stat. 1143; 47 U.S.C. 605) shall limit the constitutional power of the President to take such measures as he deems necessary to protect the Nation against actual or potential attack or other hostile acts of a foreign power, to obtain foreign intelligence information deemed essential to the security of the United States, or to protect national security information against foreign intelligence activities. Nor shall anything contained in this chapter be deemed to limit the constitutional power of the President to take such measures as he deems necessary to protect the United States against the overthrow of the Government by force or other unlawful means, or against any other clear and present danger to the structure or existence of the Government. The contents [p338] of any wire or oral communication intercepted by authority of the President in the exercise of the foregoing powers may be received in evidence in any trial hearing, or other proceeding only where such interception was reasonable, and shall not be otherwise used or disclosed except as is necessary to implement that power.

It is this subsection that lies at the heart of this case.

The interception here was without judicial warrant, it was not covered by the provisions of § 2511(2), and it is too clear for argument that it is illegal under § 2511(1) unless it is saved by § 2511(3). The majority asserts that § 2511(3) is a "disclaimer," but not an "exception." But however it is labeled, it is apparent from the face of the section and its legislative history that, if this interception is one of those described in § 2511(3), it is not reached by the statutory ban on unwarranted electronic eavesdropping. [2]

The defendants in the District Court moved for the production of the logs of any electronic surveillance to which they might have been subjected. The Government [p339] responded that conversations of Plamondon had been intercepted, but took the position that turnover of surveillance records was not necessary because the interception complied with the law. Clearly, for the Government to prevail, it was necessary to demonstrate, first, that the interception involved was not subject to the statutory requirement of judicial approval for wiretapping because the surveillance was within the scope of § 2511(3), and, secondly, if the Act did not forbid the warrantless wiretap, that the surveillance was consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

The United States has made no claim in this case that the statute may not constitutionally be applied to the surveillance at issue here. [3] Nor has it denied that, to [p340] comply with the Act, the surveillance must either be supported by a warrant or fall within the bounds of the exceptions provided by § 2511(3). Nevertheless, as I read the opinions of the District Court and the Court of Appeals, neither court stopped to inquire whether the challenged interception was illegal under the statute, but proceeded directly to the constitutional issue without adverting to the time-honored rule that courts should abjure constitutional issues except where necessary to decision of the case before them. Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 297 U.S. 288, 346-348 (1936) (concurring opinion). Because I conclude that, on the record before us, the surveillance undertaken by the Government in this case was illegal under the statute itself, I find it unnecessary, and therefore improper, to consider or decide the constitutional questions which the courts below improvidently reached.

The threshold statutory question is simply put: was the electronic surveillance undertaken by the Government in this case a measure deemed necessary by the President to implement either the first or second branch of the exception carved out by § 2511(3) to the general requirement of a warrant?

The answer, it seems to me, must turn on the affidavit of the Attorney General offered by the United States in opposition to defendants' motion to disclose surveillance records. It is apparent that there is nothing whatsoever in this affidavit suggesting that the surveillance was [p341] undertaken within the first branch of the § 2511(3) exception, that is, to protect against foreign attack, to gather foreign intelligence or to protect national security information. The sole assertion was that the monitoring at issue was employed to gather intelligence information

deemed necessary to protect the nation from attempts of domestic organizations to attack and subvert the existing structure of the Government.

App. 20.

Neither can I conclude from this characterization that the wiretap employed here fell within the exception recognized by the second sentence of § 2511(3), for it utterly fails to assume responsibility for the judgment that Congress demanded: that the surveillance was necessary to prevent overthrow by force or other unlawful means, or that there was any other clear and present danger to the structure or existence of the Government. The affidavit speaks only of attempts to attack or subvert; it makes no reference to force or unlawfulness; it articulates no conclusion that the attempts involved any clear and present danger to the existence or structure of the Government.

The shortcomings of the affidavit when measured against § 2511(3) are patent. Indeed, the United States, in oral argument, conceded no less. The specific inquiry put to Government counsel was: "Do you think the affidavit, standing alone, satisfies the Safe Streets Act?" The Assistant Attorney General answered "No, sir. We do not rely upon the affidavit itself. . . ." Tr. of Oral Arg. 15. [4]

Government counsel, however, seek to save their case by reference to the in camera exhibit submitted to the [p342] District Court to supplement the Attorney General's affidavit. [5] It is said that the exhibit includes the request for wiretap approval submitted to the Attorney General, that the request asserted the need to avert a clear and present danger to the structure and existence of the Government, and that the Attorney General endorsed his approval on the request. [6] But I am unconvinced that the mere endorsement of the Attorney General on the request for approval submitted to him must be taken as the Attorney General's own opinion that the wiretap was necessary to avert a clear and present danger to the existence or structure of the Government [p343] when, in an affidavit later filed in court specifically characterizing the purposes of the interception and at least impliedly the grounds for his prior approval, the Attorney General said only that the tap was undertaken to secure intelligence thought necessary to protect against attempts to attack and subvert the structure of Government. If the Attorney General's approval of the interception is to be given a judicially cognizable meaning different from the meaning he seems to have ascribed to it in his affidavit filed in court, there obviously must be further proceedings in the District Court.

Moreover, I am reluctant to proceed in the first instance to examine the in camera material and either sustain or reject the surveillance as a necessary measure to avert the dangers referred to in § 2511(3). What Congress excepted from the warrant requirement was a surveillance which the President would assume responsibility for deeming an essential measure to protect against clear and present danger. No judge can satisfy this congressional requirement.

Without the necessary threshold determination, the interception is, in my opinion, contrary to the terms of the statute and subject therefore to the prohibition contained in § 2515 against the use of the fruits of the warrantless electronic surveillance as evidence at any trial. [7]

There remain two additional interrelated reasons for not reaching the constitutional issue. First, even if it were determined that the Attorney General purported to [p344] authorize an electronic surveillance for purposes exempt from the general provisions of the Act, there would remain the issue whether his discretion was properly authorized. The United States concedes that the act of the Attorney General authorizing a warrantless wiretap is subject to judicial review to some extent, Brief for United States 21-23, and it seems improvident to proceed to constitutional questions until it is determined that the Act itself does not bar the interception here in question.

Second, and again on the assumption that the surveillance here involved fell within the exception provided by § 2511(3), no constitutional issue need be reached in this case if the fruit of the wiretap were inadmissible on statutory grounds in the criminal proceedings pending against respondent Plamondon. Section 2511(3) itself states that

[t]he contents of any wire or oral communication intercepted by authority of the President in the exercise of the foregoing powers may be received in evidence in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding only where such interception was reasonable, and shall not be otherwise used or disclosed except as is necessary to implement that power.

(Emphasis added.) There has been no determination by the District Court that it would be reasonable to use the fruits of the wiretap against Plamondon, or that it would be necessary to do so to implement the purposes for which the tap was authorized.

My own conclusion, again, is that, as long as nonconstitutional, statutory grounds for excluding the evidence or its fruits have not been disposed of, it is improvident to reach the constitutional issue.

I would thus affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals unless the Court is prepared to reconsider the necessity for an adversary, rather than an in camera, hearing with respect to taint. If in camera proceedings are sufficient and no taint is discerned by the judge, this case is over, whatever the legality of the tap.


^ . The Attorney General's affidavit concluded:

I certify that it would prejudice the national interest to disclose the particular facts concerning these surveillances other than to the court in camera. Accordingly, the sealed exhibit referred to herein is being submitted solely for the court's in camera inspection and a copy of the sealed exhibit is not being furnished to the defendants. I would request the court, at the conclusion of its hearing on this matter, to place the sealed exhibit in a sealed envelope and return it to the Department of Justice, where it will be retained under seal so that it may be submitted to any appellate court that may review this matter.

App. 20-21.

^ . I cannot agree with the majority's analysis of the import of § 2511(3). Surely, Congress meant at least that, if a court determined that in the specified circumstances the President could constitutionally intercept communications without a warrant, the general ban of § 2511(1) would not apply. But the limitation on the applicability of § 2511(1) was not open-ended; it was confined to those situations that § 2511(3) specifically described. Thus, even assuming the constitutionality of a warrantless surveillance authorized by the President to uncover private or official graft forbidden by federal statute, the interception would be illegal under § 2511(1) because it is not the type of presidential action saved by the Act by the provision of § 2511(3). As stated in the text and n. 3, infra, the United States does not claim that Congress is powerless to require warrants for surveillances that the President otherwise would not be barred by the Fourth Amendment from undertaking without a warrant.

^ . See Tr. of Oral Arg. 13-14:

Q. . . . I take it from your answer that Congress could forbid the President from doing what you suggest he has the power to do in this case?
Mr. Mardian [Assistant Attorney General]: That issue is not before this Court —
Q. Well, I would — my next question will suggest that it is. Would you say, though, that Congress could forbid the President?
Mr. Mardian: I think, under the rule announced by this court in Colony Catering, that, within certain limits, the Congress could severely restrict the power of the President in this area.
Q. Well, let's assume Congress says, then, that the Attorney General, or the President may authorize the Attorney General, in specific situations, to carry out electronic surveillance if the Attorney General certifies that there is a clear and present danger to the security of the United States?
Mr. Mardian: I think that Congress has already provided that, and —
Q. Well, would you say that Congress would have the power to limit surveillances to situations where those conditions were satisfied?
Mr. Mardian: Yes, I would — I would concur in that, Your Honor.

A colloquy appearing in the debates on the bill, appearing at 114 Cong.Rec. 14750-14751, indicates that some Senators considered § 2511(3) as merely stating an intention not to interfere with the constitutional powers that the President might otherwise have to engage in warrantless electronic surveillance. But the Department of Justice, it was said, participated in the drafting of § 2511(3), and there is no indication in the legislative history that there was any claim or thought that the supposed powers of the President reached beyond those described in the section. In any case, it seems clear that the congressional policy of noninterference was limited to the terms of § 2511(3).

^ . See also Tr. of Oral Arg. 17:

Q. . . . If all the in camera document contained was what this affidavit contained, it would not comply with the Safe Streets Act?
Mr. Mardian: I would concur in that, Your Honor.

^ . The Government appears to have shifted ground in this respect. In its initial brief to this Court, the Government quoted the Attorney General's affidavit and then said, without qualification, "These were the grounds upon which the Attorney General authorized the surveillance in the present case." Brief for United States 21. Moreover, counsel for the Government stated at oral argument

that the in camera submission was not intended as a justification for the authorization, but simply [as] a proof of the fact that the authorization had been granted by the Attorney General of the United States, over his own signature.

Tr. of Oral Arg. 7.

Later at oral argument, however, the Government said:

[T]he affidavit was never intended as the basis for justifying the surveillance in question. . . . The justification, and again I suggest that it is only a partial justification, is contained in the in camera exhibit which was submitted to Judge Keith. . . . We do not rely upon the affidavit itself, but the in camera exhibit.

Tr. of Oral Arg. 115. And in its reply brief, the Government says flatly:

Those [in camera] documents, and not the affidavit, are the proper basis for determining the ground upon which the Attorney General acted.

Reply Brief for United States 9.

^ . Procedures in practice at the time of the request here in issue apparently resulted in the Attorney General's merely countersigning a request which asserted a need for a wiretap. We are told that, under present procedures, the Attorney General makes an express written finding of clear and present danger to the structure and existence of the Government before he authorizes a tap. Tr. of Oral Arg. 17-18.

^ .

Whenever any wire or oral communication has been intercepted, no part of the contents of such communication and no evidence derived therefrom may be received in evidence in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding in or before any court, grand jury, department, officer, agency, regulatory body, legislative committee, or other authority of the United States, a State, or a political subdivision thereof if the disclosure of that information would be in violation of this chapter.

18 U.S.C. § 2515.