United States v. New York Telephone Co.

The Cyber Blog IndiaCase Summary

Can a District Court direct a telephone company to install a pen register to provide assistance in an FBI investigation?

United States v. New York Telephone Co.
434 U.S. 159
In the Supreme Court of the United States
Case Number 76-835
Before Chief Justice Burger, Justice White, Justice Blackmun, Justice Powell, Justice Rehnquist, Justice Stewart, Justice Brennan, Justice Marshall and Justice Stevens
Decided on December 07, 1977

Relevancy of the case: Can a District Court direct a telephone company to install a pen register to provide assistance in an FBI investigation?

Statutes and Provisions Involved

  • The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510-2511
  • The All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651
  • The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, 1961 (Rule 41, 57(b))

Relevant Facts of the Case

  • The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued an order authorising the FBI to install and use pen registers.
  • The court also ordered the New York Telephone Company to furnish all necessary facilities without any obstruction. FBI had to compensate the telephone company for the prevailing rates of interest for their assistance furnished.
  • This order was based on an FBI agent’s report. This report concluded that there was a probable cause to believe the involvement of two numbers in carrying out certain illegal gambling activities.
  • The company declined to fully comply with the court’s order.
  • However, the company informed the FBI about the location of relevant appearances and agreed to identify relevant pairs of wires connected to the two telephone numbers.
  • The company advised the FBI to use string cables instead of providing leased lines to connect the pen registers. After thorough canvassing, the FBI decided it was impossible without alerting the suspects.

Prominent Arguments by the Counsels

  • The respondent’s counsel argued that the district court lacked the authority to order the company to assist in the investigation. Further, they argued that the authority to use pen registers lay in Title III. Thus, the court needed to issue a wiretap order.

Opinion of the Bench

  • The court held that Title III does not govern pen registers as pen registers did not ‘intercept’ the telephone line. Pen registers only disclosed the telephone number dialled. Thus, the court need not issue a wiretap order.
  • The district court did have the power to authorise the company for installation under the All Writs Act.
  • The company’s assistance was necessary for the FBI’s investigation.

Final Decision

  • The bench reversed the Court of Appeals’ judgment and upheld the District Court’s orders to assist the FBI in the investigation.

Arnav Kaman, an undergraduate student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab, and Yagyanseni Acharya, an undergraduate student at VIT School of Law, Chennai, prepared this case summary during their internship with The Cyber Blog India in January/February 2024.