SCOTT V. UNITED STATES, 436 U. S. 128 (1978)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Scott v. United States, 436 U.S. 128 (1978)

Scott v. United States

No. 76-6767

Argued March 1, 1978

Decided May 15, 1978

436 U.S. 128


Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 requires that wiretapping or electronic surveillance "be conducted in such a way as to minimize" the interception of communications not otherwise subject to interception under that Title. 18 U.S.C. § 2518(5) (1976 ed.). Pursuant to a court wiretap authorization order requiring such minimization, Government agents intercepted for a one-month period virtually all conversations over a particular telephone suspected of being used in furtherance of a conspiracy to import and distribute narcotics. Forty percent of the calls were clearly narcotics related, and the remaining calls were for the most part very short, such as wrong-number calls, and calls to persons unavailable to come to the phone, or were ambiguous in nature, and in a few instances were between the person to whom the telephone was registered and her mother. After the interceptions were terminated, petitioners, among others, were indicted for various narcotics offenses. The District Court, on petitioners' pretrial motion, ordered suppression of all the intercepted conversations and derivative evidence, on the ground that the agents had failed to comply with the wiretap order's minimization requirement, primarily because only 40% of the conversations were shown to be narcotics related. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, stating that the District Court should not have based its determination upon a general comparison of the number of narcotics-related calls with the total number of calls intercepted, but rather should have engaged in a particularized assessment of the reasonableness of the agents' attempts to minimize in light of the purpose of the wiretap and information available to the agents at the time of interception. On remand, the District Court again ordered suppression, relying largely on the fact that the agents were aware of the minimization requirement "but made no attempt to comply therewith." The Court of Appeals again reversed, holding that the District Court had yet to apply the correct standard, that the decision on the suppression motion ultimately had to be based on the reasonableness of the actual interceptions, and not on whether the agents subjectively intended to minimize their interceptions, and that suppression in this case was not

Page 436 U. S. 129

appropriate. Petitioners were eventually convicted, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. The proper approach for evaluating compliance with the minimization requirement, like evaluation of all alleged violations of the Fourth Amendment, is objectively to assess the agent's or officer's actions in light of the facts and circumstances confronting him at the time, without regard to his underlying intent or motive. Pp. 436 U. S. 135-138.

2. Even if the agents fail to make good faith efforts at minimization, that is not itself a violation of the statute requiring suppression, since the use of the word "conducted" in § 2518(5) makes it clear that the focus was to be on the agents' actions, not their motives, and since the legislative history shows that the statute was not intended to extend the scope of suppression beyond search and seizure law under the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 436 U. S. 138-139.

3. The Court of Appeals did not err in rejecting petitioners' minimization claim, but properly analyzed the reasonableness of the wiretap. Pp. 436 U. S. 139-143.

(a) Blind reliance on the percentage of nonpertinent calls intercepted is not a sure guide to the correct answer. While such percentages may provide assistance, there are cases, like this one, where the percentage of nonpertinent calls is relatively high and yet their interception was still reasonable. P. 436 U. S. 140.

(b) It is also important to consider the circumstances of the wiretap, such as whether more extensive surveillance may be justified because of a suspected widespread conspiracy, or the type of use to which the wiretapped telephone is normally put. P. 436 U. S. 140.

(c) Other factors, such as the exact point during the authorized period at which the interception was made, may be significant in a particular case. P. 436 U. S. 141.

(d) As to most of the calls here that were not narcotics-related, such calls did not give the agents an opportunity to develop a category of innocent calls that should not have been intercepted, and hence their interception cannot be viewed as a violation of the minimization requirement. As to the calls between the telephone registrant and her mother, it cannot be said that, even though they turned out not to be relevant to the investigation, the Court of Appeals was incorrect in concluding that the agents did not act unreasonably at the time they made these interceptions. Pp. 436 U. S. 142-143.

179 U.S.App.D.C. 281, 551 F.2d 467, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined.

Page 436 U. S. 130

BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 436 U. S. 143.

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