Weeks v. U.S Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Supreme Court decision

By: William R. Day

Date: February 24, 1914

Source: Day, William R. Weeks v. U.S., 232 U.S. 383 (1914). Available online at http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/us/232/383.html; website home page: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com (accessed January 22, 2003).

About the Author: William R. Day (1849–1923), born in Ravenna, Ohio, served briefly (and unwillingly) as U.S. attorney general in 1898. In 1899, he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt (served 1901–1909) appointed him to the Supreme Court, where he served as an associate justice until his resignation in 1922.


Many Anti-Federalists opposed the U.S. Constitution because they believed it granted too much power to the federal government. To quiet their fears, and to protect the citizenry, the first Congress proposed twelve amendments to the Constitution in 1789. Ten, the Bill of Rights, were quickly ratified by the states and became part of the Constitution in 1791. The Bill of Rights protects both civil liberties and a defendant's rights when tried in a court of law. These provisions, however, are not self-enforcing, and the question quickly arose as to what would happen if they were violated. Because there were few federal criminal laws in the nation's early years, the Supreme Court had few chances to answer this question.

The Embargo Act of 1807 raised questions of what the federal government could search and seize, but the Supreme Court never ruled on this question. In an early case that finally addressed the issue, Boyd v. U.S., the Supreme Court prohibited the use of evidence seized without a warrant. The Court, however, did not explicitly state that all evidence seized without a warrant could not be used—an issue raised in Weeks. In Barron v. Baltimore, the Court again ruled that the federal government could not use evidence seized without a search warrant, but it specified no penalty for the government should it use such evidence in a trial until the Weeks case.


The penalty that the Supreme Court imposed in Weeks for using evidence obtained without a search warrant was a heavy one: the overturning of convictions. This ruling put teeth into the Fourth Amendment. As the Court noted, if illegally seized documents are allowed, "the Fourth Amendment … might as well be stricken from the Constitution." The prohibition on using illegally seized evidence has come to be known as the "exclusionary rule." Even with this decision, the issue was not settled, though, as the question remained whether the exclusionary rule applied not only to the federal government but also to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits states from violating a person's liberty without due process of law. If "liberty" included the Fourth Amendment right against search and seizure without a warrant, then the exclusionary rule applied. In 1937, the Supreme Court ruled that some of the Bill of Rights applied to the states, but only those amendments that were part of what the court called "ordered liberty." The Court held illegal those practices that violated what Justice Felix Frankfurter called "accepted notions of justice." In 1949, the Supreme Court applied this theory to refuse to overturn a state conviction based on evidence obtained by an illegal search. In 1952, the Court did find illegal evidence obtained by a stomach pump, even while allowing, five years later, a blood sample taken from an unconscious person. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, therefore, no clear standard emerged.

In 1961, the Warren Court finally set a clear precedent. In Mapp v. Ohio, it held that the Fourth Amendment did apply to the states and that the Supreme Court would hold them to the "exclusionary rule." The Court in Mapp noted that over half of the states already used the federal standard. Since Mapp, though, the Supreme Court has limited that ruling, allowing states to use some illegally seized evidence. The Court severely reformulated the Mapp formula in U.S. v. Leon (1984), deciding to weigh the benefit to society against a particular suspect's rights. Under the Rehnquist Court, the Fourth Amendment has continued to be narrowed. Thus, the width and applicability of the Fourth Amendment has varied significantly since the Weeks decision, but Weeks set the precedent for overturning convictions obtained through illegal search and seizure.

Primary Source: Weeks v. U.S. [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: Day first lays out Weeks's claim that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. He next cites the Boydcase, which held that the federal government cannot use illegally seized evidence, as that would violate the Fourth Amendment. He goes on to say that the illegally seized evidence should not have been used, and thus Weeks was wrongfully convicted. He concludes by reversing the conviction.

Mr. Justice Day delivered the opinion of the Court.

An indictment was returned against the plaintiff in error, defendant below, and herein so designated, in the district court of the United States for the western district of Missouri, containing nine counts. The seventh count, upon which a conviction was had, charged the use of the mails for the purpose of transporting certain coupons or tickets representing chances or shares in a lottery or gift enterprise, in violation of 213 of the Criminal Code [35 Stat. at L. 1129, chap. 321, U. S. Comp. Stat. Supp. 1911, p. 1652]. Sentence of fine and imprisonment was imposed. This writ of error is to review that judgment.

The defendant was arrested by a police officer, so far as the record shows, without warrant, at the Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was employed by an express company. Other police officers had gone to the house of the defendant, and being told by a neighbor where the key was kept, found it and entered the house. They searched the defendant's room and took possession of various papers and articles found there, which were afterwards turned over to the United States marshal. Later in the same day police officers returned with the marshal, who thought he might find additional evidence, and, being admitted by someone in the house, probably a boarder, in response to a rap, the marshal searched the defendant's room and carried away certain letters and envelopes found in the drawer of a chiffonier. Neither the marshal nor the police officer had a search warrant.…

The defendant assigns error, among other things, in the court's … permitting the papers to be used at the trial.

It is thus apparent that the question presented involves the determination of the duty of the court with reference to the motion made by the defendant for the return of certain letters, as well as other papers, taken from his room by the United States marshal, who, without authority of process, if any such could have been legally issued, visited the room of the defendant for the declared purpose of obtaining additional testimony to support the charge against the accused, and, having gained admission to the house, took from the drawer of a chiffonier there found certain letters written to the defendant, tending to show his guilt. These letters were placed in the control of the district attorney, and were subsequently produced by him and offered in evidence against the accused at the trial. The defendant contends that such appropriation of his private correspondence was in violation of rights secured to him by the 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. We shall deal with the 4th Amendment, which provides:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.…

The effect of the 4th Amendment is to put the courts of the United States and Federal officials, in the exercise of their power and authority, under limitations and restraints as to the exercise of such power and authority, and to forever secure the people, their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against all unreasonable searches and seizures under the guise of law. This protection reaches all alike, whether accused of crime or not, and the duty of giving to it force and effect is obligatory upon all intrusted under our Federal system with the enforcement of the laws. The tendency of those who execute the criminal laws of the country to obtain conviction by means of unlawful seizures and enforced confessions, the latter often obtained after subjecting accused persons to unwarranted practices destructive of rights secured by the Federal Constitution, should find no sanction in the judgments of the courts, which are charged at all times with the support of the Constitution, and to which people of all conditions have a right to appeal for the maintenance of such fundamental rights.…

The Exclusionary Rule

The "exclusionary rule" does not just require a search warrant in order for seized property to be used against a defendant in court. It also requires probable cause for the search that produces the seizure. A drug raid in 1981 resulted in the arrests of four dealers, including Alberto Leon, who protested that the search warrant under which the paraphernalia had been seized had not been issued with probable cause. The Supreme Court heard the case but determined that, as the four plainly were guilty, the rights of society outweighed any rights Leon and his compatriots were asserting.

What, then, is the present case? … The case in the aspect in which we are dealing with it involves the right of the court in a criminal prosecution to retain for the purposes of evidence the letters and correspondence of the accused, seized in his house in his absence and without his authority, by a United States marshal holding no warrant for his arrest and none for the search of his premises. The accused, without awaiting his trial, made timely application to the court for an order for the return of these letters, as well or other property. This application was denied, the letters retained and put in evidence, after a further application at the beginning of the trial, both applications asserting the rights of the accused under the 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution. If letters and private documents can thus be seized and held and used in evidence against a citizen accused of an offense, the protection of the 4th Amendment, declaring his right to be secure against such searches and seizures, is of no value, and, so far as those thus placed are concerned, might as well be stricken from the Constitution. The efforts of the courts and their officials to bring the guilty to punishment, praiseworthy as they are, are not to be aided by the sacrifice of those great principles established by years of endeavor and suffering which have resulted in their embodiment in the fundamental law of the land. The United States marshal could only have invaded the house of the accused when armed with a warrant issued as required by the Constitution, upon sworn information, and describing with reasonable particularity the thing for which the search was to be made. Instead, he acted without sanction of law, doubtless prompted by the desire to bring further proof to the aid of the government, and under color of his office undertook to make a seizure of private papers in direct violation of the constitutional prohibition against such action. Under such circumstances, without sworn information and particular description, not even an order of court would have justified such procedure; much less was it within the authority of the United States marshal to thus invade the house and privacy of the accused.… To sanction such proceedings would be to affirm by judicial decision a manifest neglect, if not an open defiance, of the prohibitions of the Constitution, intended for the protection of the people against such unauthorized action.…

We therefore reach the conclusion that the letters in question were taken from the house of the accused by an official of the United States, acting under color of his office, in direct violation of the constitutional rights of the defendant; that having made a seasonable application for their return, which was heard and passed upon by the court, there was involved in the order refusing the application a denial of the constitutional rights of the accused, and that the court should have restored these letters to the accused. In holding them and permitting their use upon the trial, we think prejudicial error was committed. As to the papers and property seized by the policemen, it does not appear that they acted under any claim of Federal authority such as would make the amendment applicable to such unauthorized seizures. The record shows that what they did by way of arrest and search and seizure was done before the finding of the indictment in the Federal court; under what supposed right or authority does not appear. What remedies the defendant may have against them we need not inquire, as the 4th Amendment is not directed to individual misconduct of such officials. Its limitations reach the Federal government and its agencies.… It results that the judgment of the court be low must be reversed, and the case remanded for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

Further Resources


Adams, James A. Prosecutor's Manual for Arrest, Search, and Seizure. Charlottesville, Va.: Lexis, 1998.

McLean, Joseph Erigina. William Rufus Day, Supreme Court Justice from Ohio. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1946.

United States Congress, House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime. Taking Back Our Streets Act of 1995: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives. 104th Congress, 1st sess., H.R. 3, 1995. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996.

United States Department of Justice, Office of Legal Policy. Report to the Attorney General on the Search and Seizure Exclusionary Rule. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1988.

Wilson, Bradford P. Enforcing the Fourth Amendment: A Jurisprudential History. New York: Garland, 1986.