Technology, the Supreme Court, and the Fourth Amendment:

Balancing Government Power and Individual Privacy

A web site of Supreme Court cases and supplementary periodical articles presented to give students and non-students understanding and historical perspective of the Fourth Amendment and how its protections are affected by technological innovation.

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself."

-James Madison-

By reading and listening to the briefs, oral arguments, and opinions of the cases, you gain understanding of various perspectives with regard to the constitutional issues surrounding government technical eavesdropping. All of the cases deal with the constitutional issues raised by government use of technology to investigate crimes. Each case's unique and interesting facts pose questions about the balance between civil liberties and police power. The case pages feature historical article excerpts from newspapers and magazines, providing an historical context for the below cases and the constitutional arguments that they featured.

  • Olmstead v. United States (1928) Does the Fourth Amendment protect a bootlegger from warrantless government wiretapping?
  • Katz v. United States (1967) Are the bookie's conversations in a phone booth protected against electronic bugging by the FBI?
  • United States v. White (1971) Did the narcotics agents act constitutionally in wiring for sound a police informant to catch a heroin buyer?
  • United States v. Miller (1976) Can the moonshine maker's bank records be seized by the government without a warrant?
  • Kyllo v. United States (2001) Does the Fourth Amendment forbid federal agents from using a device to detect heat waves coming through a marijuana grower's home?