Citation Edit

United States v. New York Telephone Co., 434 U.S. 159 (1977) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

The U.S. District Court had authorized the FBI to install and use a pen register surveillance device on two telephones used by the suspects of a government investigation. The court also directed the telephone company to furnish the FBI "all information, facilities and technical assistance" necessary to install and use the device. The telephone company refused to lease the FBI the phone lines needed for unobtrusive installation of the pen register, and asked the court to vacate that portion of the order directing it to furnish facilities and technical assistance to the FBI on the ground that such a directive could be issued only in connection with a Title III wiretap order.

The Court of Appeals held that the District Court had abused its discretion in ordering the telephone company to assist in installing and operating the pen registers, and expressed concern that such a requirement could establish an undesirable precedent for the authority of the federal courts to impress unwilling aid on private third parties.

U.S. Supreme Court Proceedings Edit

The U.S. Supreme Court looked at the All Writs Act, which states:

The Supreme Court and all courts established by Act of Congress may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.

The Court noted that "[t]he assistance of the Company was required . . . to implement a pen register order which . . . the District Court was empowered to issue." It also noted that "without the Company's assistance there is no conceivable way in which the surveillance authorized by the District Court could have been successfully accomplished. . . . The provision of a leased line by the Company was essential to the fulfillment of the purpose — to learn the identities of those connected with the gambling operation — for which the pen register order had been issued."

Citing the All Writs Act, the Court held that "[u]nless appropriately defined by Congress, a federal court may avail itself of all auxillary writs as aids in the performance of its duties, when the use of such historical aids is calculated in its sound judgment to achieve the ends of justice entrusted to it." Further, "[t]he power conferred by the [All Writs] Act extends, under appropriate circumstances, to persons who (though not parties to the original action or engaging in wrongdoing) are in a position to frustrate the implementation of a court order or the proper administration of justice. Here respondent . . . was not so far removed as a third party from the underlying controversy that its assistance could not permissibly by compelled by the order of the court based on a probable cause showing that respondent's facilities were being illegally used on a continuing basis."

The Court concluded that: "[t]he conviction that private citizens have a duty to provide assistance to law enforcement officers when it is required is by no means foreign to our traditions." However, the Court seemed to imply certain limits on what a court could order, noting that the District Court's original order "required minimal effort on the part of the Company and no disruption to its operations."

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