Silver Platter Doctrine

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weeks v. united states (1914), which formulated the exclusionary rule for federal prosecutions, made an exception for evidence seized by state officers in searches that did not meet fourth amendment standards. The evidence was usable in a federal trial when it was handed by the state to federal officers on "a silver platter" (Justice felix frankfurter's phrase in Lustig v. United States, 1949). Participation by federal officers in the state search, no matter how minor, rendered the evidence inadmissible in federal cases under Byars v. United States (1927), as did even a search conducted by state officers alone if its purpose was the gathering of evidence for the federal government under Gambino v. United States (1927).

A combination of several factors led to the overruling of the silver platter doctrine in elkins v. united states (1960). First, in wolf v. colorado (1949), the Supreme Court had applied "the core" of the Fourth Amendment's standard (which did not, however, include the exclusionary rule) to the states. It therefore became incongruous to admit in federal court evidence which state officials had seized in violation of the Constitution. In addition, about half the states had adopted an exclusionary rule for unlawfully seized evidence; to allow federal authorities to use evidence which would have been excluded in the state courts served to frustrate the exclusionary policies of those states and to undermine the principle of federalism on which the silver platter doctrine was itself premised. The expansion of federal criminal law also undermined the vitality of the doctrine: a growing catalogue of crimes punishable by both federal and state governments evidently alerted the Court to the attendant possibilities of abuse by cooperative law enforcement.

Thus far the Elkins principle applies only to evidence in criminal cases. In Janis v. United States (1976), the Court held that evidence unlawfully seized by state officers can be used by the federal government (and vice versa) in civil proceedings (for instance, in a tax assessment case). The Court reasoned that the main purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter unlawful searches, and that application of the rule should be tailored to this end. When the officer is prevented from using the seized evidence to further a criminal prosecution, the principle of deterrence is amply served; exclusion of the evidence in a civil case would provide no significant reinforcement for Fourth Amendment values.

Jacob W. Landynski

(see also: Two Sovereignties Rule.)


Landynski, Jacob W. 1966 Search and Seizure and the Supreme Court. Pages 70–73, 149–158. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.