Whiskey and Privacy

Roy Olmstead was a Seattle police officer and already 30 years old when the state of Washington pass a constitutional amendment making the state bone dry. Federal Prohibition was still 4 years away, it was 1915.

Washington prohibition started softly in early 1909, with cities and counties being authorized to pass their own prohibition ordinances. Eventually with suffrage and the addition of the ballot measure process the people passed a constitutional amendment in 1914 that spread Temperance to the whole state. It was a massive issue, 94.6% of eligible voters came out the polls and it passed with a margin of 18,632 votes. When you consider that the state only had a population of about 1.2 million at the time that’s a very tight race..

Just like everywhere else in the country, as soon as the government said “No Drinking!” someone somewhere brought a bottle of rum down the coast from Canada. Roy was a Sergeant at the time and well thought of by the police leadership. Because Washington had their own prohibition the local police were tasked with arresting bootleggers and smugglers. Roy and his two brothers were all members of the force and Roy eventually made it to Lieutenant giving him even more access.

Roy quickly realized how much money was involved in the trade and began to smuggle in his free time. He was eventually caught driving a truck around a blockade and drummed out the police force. Which was lucky, as he needed the free time to work on being one of the most prolific smugglers and bootleggers of the prohibition era.

The operation that Olmstead created was one of the largest employers in the Puget Sound with at least a hundred employees and many more people on the take. His operation was so big he rented an office building and employed sales people, office staff and even an in house lawyer.

At their peak even a bad month could net them $176,000 with yearly totals in the $2 million range ($26 million adjusted for inflation.) It all came to a crashing halt when the revenue agents put the cuffs on in 1926.

Olmstead himself was convicted of conspiracy to violate the Prohibition act in 1926, sentenced to 4 years hard labor and fined $8000, largely on the evidence of phone wiretaps

The wiretaps were placed on the phone lines in the street and in the basement of Olmstead’s Seattle office building but no warrant was obtained as the police didn’t need permission to enter any of the areas.

Olmstead appealed stating that the evidence presented violated his 4th and 5th amendment rights against unreasonable search and self incrimination.

In February of 1928 the Taft Supreme Court (yes former President William Howard Taft) upheld the conviction stating that the government did not trespass, did not search and did not seize anything nor did they invade his home or office. So his rights were not violated.

This decision set the tone for police surveillance, wiretaps and the right of privacy for the next 4 decades and the dissent in that case is still being used as reference against the idea that as technology progresses the rights of citizens need to be protected against the erosion of time.

This decision held until 1967 when the court overturned the Olmstead decision in Katz v United states, a decision that defined the right to privacy as we know it today with the inclusion of the right to personal privacy and the concept of a immaterial intrusion.

In the end Washington repealed their liquor control laws in 1932, and the US repeal followed in 1933. Olmstead served his sentence and was eventually pardoned by FDR in 1935 after the repeal. He lived until the age of 79 and died only a year and a half before the court overturned the decision that bears his name.

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