Can the cops legally burglarize your house?

Dear Cecil:

From time to time the media use the terms "court-authorized burglary" or "black-bag job." My research in front of the TV tells me that the authorities are free to search the following, without a warrant or the occupant's permission: (1) rented quarters, residential or business, where the landlord allows entry, or (2) a hotel room or train compartment.

In addition, however, is there such a thing has a "court-authorized burglary" of a privately owned residence or office? Is this constitutional? Has anyone ever claimed, "Hey, guys, the judge said it was cool," and got officially let off? If one of these guys gets blown away by a citizen defending himself against an apparent intruder, is it "tough noogies, Justice Department," or is the citizen in trouble?

Cecil replies:

Before we get into this, Phil, let me pass along a handy rule of thumb that we print journalists find useful in assessing the work of our electronic brethren: absolutely everything you hear on TV is wrong. This (along with genetic drift) is what accounts for your present state of mind.

Contrary to what you may have heard on the tube, the cops cannot search your apartment, hotel room, or train compartment just because the landlord (or whoever) says so. They have to get either a warrant or your permission first.

There are some exceptions to this, such as if you go out and kill somebody and somewhat stupidly hotfoot it back to your apartment with the police right behind you. However, this does not exactly qualify as a black-bag job.

(Landlords themselves, I might point out, generally have the right of “reasonable access” to your place for purposes of maintenance, showing the joint to prospective tenants, and so on–but that’s as far as it goes.)

Having said all this, I must admit that there does appear to be at least one instance in which a so-called black bag job is permissible: when the authorities have to get into your house to install an authorized wiretap. We learn this from the 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Dalia v. U.S. (Uncle Cecil loves to read all this ancient legal rubbish).

Lawrence Dalia was an evil being from New Jersey (where else?) who conspired to transport a truckload of stolen cloth. In hopes of proving this, the feds got a court order allowing them to bug Dalia’s office.

Unfortunately, the order didn’t say anything about “covert entry,” as we masters of deceit like to refer to it. For that matter, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which legalized wiretapping in the first place, never mentions covert entry, although it seems pretty obvious you can’t just go knocking on somebody’s door and ask if it’s OK to put a tap on the phone.

At any rate, the feds went ahead and sneaked into Dalia’s office, installed the bug, and used the evidence obtained thereby to convict him. Dalia petitioned to have the evidence thrown out on the grounds that black-bag jobs were illegal, but the judge basically said that permission to sneak in was implicit in the warrant authorizing the wiretap.

The Supreme Court upheld this ruling. Note that the coppers still have to get a warrant of some sort, and also that they can’t just go in and steal stuff, the latter field of endeavor being restricted to the Internal Revenue Service.

We must further note that the court left unanswered the tantalizing question of what would happen if a citizen offed a G-man who was sneaking onto the premises one night with authorized wiretap in hand. However, Phil, you seem like the adventurous sort, and you may well have an opportunity someday to deal with this issue at first hand. Be sure to let Cecil know how things work out.

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