WEEKS V. UNITED STATES, 232 U. S. 383 (1914)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383 (1914)

Weeks v. United States

No. 461

Argued December 2, 3, 1913

Decided February 24,1914

232 U.S. 383


Under the Fourth Amendment, Federal courts and officers are under such limitations and restraints in the exercise of their power and authority as to forever secure the people, their persons, houses, papers and effects against all unreasonable searches and seizures under the guise of law.

The protection of the Fourth Amendment reaches all alike, whether accused of crime or not; and the duty of giving it force and effect is obligatory on all entrusted with the enforcement of Federal laws.

The tendency of those executing Federal criminal laws to obtain convictions by means of unlawful seizures and enforced confessions in violation of Federal rights is not to be sanctioned by the courts which are charged with the support of constitutional rights.

The Federal courts cannot, as against a seasonable application for their return, in a criminal prosecution, retain for the purposes of evidence against the accused his letters and correspondence seized in his house during his absence and without his authority by a United States marshal holding no warrant for his arrest or for the search of his premises.

While the efforts of courts and their officials to bring the guilty to punishment are praiseworthy, they are not to be aided by sacrificing the great fundamental rights secured by the Constitution.

While an incidental seizure of incriminating papers, made in the execution of a legal warrant, and their use as evidence, may be justified, and a collateral issue will not be raised to ascertain the source of competent evidence, Adams v. New York, 192 U. S. 585, that rule does not justify the retention of letters seized in violation of the protection given by the Fourth Amendment where an application in the cause for their return has been made by the accused before trial.

The court has power to deal with papers and documents in the possession of the District Attorney and other officers of the court and to direct their return to the accused if wrongfully seized.

Where letters and papers of the accused were taken from his premises by an official of the United States, acting under color of office but

Page 232 U. S. 384

without any search warrant and in violation of the constitutional rights of accused under the Fourth Amendment, and a seasonable application for return of the letters and papers has been refused and they are used in evidence over his objection, prejudicial error is committed, and the judgment should be reversed.

The Fourth Amendment is not directed to individual misconduct of state officers. Its limitations reach the Federal Government and its agencies. Boyd v. United States, 116 U. S. 616.

The facts, which involve the validity under the Fourth Amendment of a verdict and sentence and the extent to which the private papers of the accused taken without search warrant can be used as evidence against him, are stated in the opinion.

Page 232 U. S. 386

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