United States v. Miller (1976)

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United States v. Miller
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued January 12, 1976
Decided April 21, 1976
Full case nameUnited States v. Miller
Citations425 U.S. 435 ( more )
96 S. Ct. 1619; 48 L. Ed. 2d 71
Case history
Prior500 F.2d 751 (5th Cir. 1974); rehearing en banc denied, 508 F.2d 588 (5th Cir. 1975); cert. denied, 421 U.S. 1010(1975).
Bank records are not subject to protection under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
William J. Brennan Jr.  · Potter Stewart
Byron White  · Thurgood Marshall
Harry Blackmun  · Lewis F. Powell Jr.
William Rehnquist  · John P. Stevens
Case opinions
MajorityPowell, joined by Burger, Stewart, White, Blackmun, Rehnquist, Stevens

United States v. Miller , 425 U.S. 435 (1976), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that bank records are not subject to protection under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. [1] The case, along with Smith v. Maryland , established the principal of the third-party doctrine in relation to privacy rights.

Supreme Court of the United States Highest court in the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States. Established pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, it has original jurisdiction over a narrow range of cases, including suits between two or more states and those involving ambassadors. It also has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all federal court and state court cases that involve a point of federal constitutional or statutory law. The Court has the power of judicial review, the ability to invalidate a statute for violating a provision of the Constitution or an executive act for being unlawful. However, it may act only within the context of a case in an area of law over which it has jurisdiction. The court may decide cases having political overtones, but it has ruled that it does not have power to decide nonjusticiable political questions. Each year it agrees to hear about one hundred to one hundred fifty of the more than seven thousand cases that it is asked to review.

Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. It prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. In addition, it sets requirements for issuing warrants: warrants must be issued by a judge or magistrate, justified by probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and must particularly describe the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.

Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that the installation and use of the pen register was not a "search" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and hence no warrant was required. The pen register was installed on telephone company property at the telephone company's central offices. In the Majority opinion, Justice Blackmun rejected the idea that the installation and use of a pen register constitutes a violation of the "legitimate expectation of privacy" since the numbers would be available to and recorded by the phone company anyway.



In 1973, sheriffs for Houston County, Georgia discovered an undocumented whiskey distillery, first by seizing a truck with distillery equipment and arresting its drivers, and later investigating a warehouse fire in the town of Kathleen and discovering distillery equipment there. They identified the warehouse property leaser as Mitch Miller of Georgia. The Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau (ATF) of the United States Treasury Department, investigating the case, requested that local banks, holding Miller's accounts, provide all paperwork of his bank transactions to date via a grand jury subpoena duces tecum, rather than a warrant; the banks complied without notifying Miller. The financial records supported evidence that Miller had rented the truck, radio equipment, and sheet metal to support the distillery, and he and four others were charged with conspiracy (by selling tax-free whiskey), possession of distilled spirits, and possession of an unregistered still.

Houston County, Georgia County in the United States

Houston County is a county located in the central portion of the U.S. state of Georgia. The estimated 2016 population is 152,122. Its county seat is Perry, although the city of Warner Robins is substantially larger in both area and population.

Kathleen, Georgia Place in Georgia, United States

Kathleen is an unincorporated community in Houston County, Georgia, United States. It is part of the Warner Robins, Georgia Metropolitan Statistical Area. It is home to roughly 11,500 people.

Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, statutorily named the Tax and Trade Bureau and frequently shortened to TTB, is a bureau of the United States Department of the Treasury, which regulates and collects taxes on trade and imports of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms within the United States.

The trial was held at the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. During the defense, Miller attempted to prevent the bank records from being submitted as evidence, claiming these were illegally obtained, as such records should be protected from illegal search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The District Court rejected Miller's arguments, and resulted in a conviction with a sentence of three years in prison for Miller. Miller argued on the use of bank records as evidence to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the District Court's findings. Miller had attempted to argue that the Bank Secrecy Act, which required banks to make microfilm copies of all checks they processed, was unconstitutional, the Firth Circuit recognized that the Supreme Court had validated the Act's constitutionality through California Bankers Ass'n v. Shultz, [2] but this did not allow for the types of actions that the ATF used. The Fifth Circuit cited Boyd v. United States for the proposition that "a compulsory production of a man's private papers to establish a criminal charge against him...is within the scope of the Fourth Amendment". [3] The court ruled that the Bank Secrecy Act did not overrule Fourth Amendment protections, and overturned the District Court's ruling. [4]

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia is a United States District Court which serves the residents of sixty-nine counties from seven divisions from its headquarters in Macon, Georgia.

United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit federal court

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is a federal court with appellate jurisdiction over the district courts in the following federal judicial districts:

Bank Secrecy Act 1970 act of the United States Congress

The Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 (BSA), also known as the Currency and Foreign Transactions Reporting Act, is a U.S. law requiring financial institutions in the United States to assist U.S. government agencies in detecting and preventing money laundering. Specifically, the act requires financial institutions to keep records of cash purchases of negotiable instruments, file reports if the daily aggregate exceeds $10,000, and report suspicious activity that may signify money laundering, tax evasion, or other criminal activities.

Supreme Court

The government petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their appeal, asking whether the privacy rights of the Fourth Amendment covered the method that the ATF had acquired the bank records. Oral arguments were presented on January 12, 1976, with a decision issued on April 21, 1976.

The majority decision was given by Justice Lewis Powell, with all but Justices Brennan and Marshall joining, reversing the Fifth Circuit's decision. Powell determined that the bank records were not the private papers of Miller, but instead owned by the banks as part of its necessary business operations. Reiterating points made in California Bankers Ass'n v. Shultz, Powell stated that there is no expectation of privacy that a customer of a bank has when they do business through the bank, as checks, deposit slips and other paperwork are elements of commercial transactions. The Supreme Court remanded Miller's case back to the Fifth Circuit.

Lewis F. Powell Jr. American judge

Lewis Franklin Powell Jr. was an American lawyer and jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, serving from 1971 to 1987. Powell compiled a conservative record on the Court and cultivated a reputation as a swing vote with a penchant for compromise.

Justice William J. Brennan Jr. dissented, identifying that a similar case, Burrows v. Superior Court, [5] had been decided in the California Supreme Court that ruled that bank records were protected under the Fourth Amendment, in a manner consistent with California Bankers Ass'n v. Shultz, which the Court could have used for this case. Justice Thurgood Marshall also dissented, reiterating his dissent from California Bankers Ass'n that he believed the Bank Secrecy Act was unconstitutional and would lead to violation of Fourth Amendment rights.

William J. Brennan Jr. American judge

William Joseph Brennan Jr. was an American judge who served as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1956 to 1990. As the seventh longest-serving justice in Supreme Court history, he was known for being a leader of the Court's liberal wing.

Thurgood Marshall American judge

Thurgood Marshall was an American lawyer, serving as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from October 1967 until October 1991. Marshall was the Court's 96th justice and its first African-American justice. Prior to his judicial service, he successfully argued several cases before the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education.


United States v. Miller, along with Smith v. Maryland , [6] which dealt with the privacy of telephone records, established the concept of a third-party doctrine that has been used by the courts to determine to what extent Fourth Amendment protection expectation of privacy covers. This doctrine generally finds that information that a person provides voluntarily to a third-party no longer is covered by expectation of privacy, and the government can obtain such information without a warrant. [7]

The third-party doctrine is a United States legal theory that holds that people who voluntarily give information to third parties—such as banks, phone companies, internet service providers (ISPs), and e-mail servers—have "no reasonable expectation of privacy." A lack of privacy protection allows the United States government to obtain information from third parties without a legal warrant and without otherwise complying with the Fourth Amendment prohibition against search and seizure without probable cause and a judicial search warrant.

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  1. United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435 (1976).
  2. California Bankers Ass'n v. Shultz, 416 U.S. 21 (1974).
  3. Boyd v. United States , 116 U.S. 616 (1886).
  4. United States v. Miller, 500 F.2d 751 (5th Cir. 1974), reh'g denied, 508 F.2d 588 (5th Cir. 1975).
  5. Burrows v. Superior Court, 13 Cal. 3d 238, 529 P.2d 590 (1974).
  6. Smith v. Maryland , 442 U.S. 735 (1979).
  7. Villasenor, John (December 30, 2013). "What You Need to Know about the Third-Party Doctrine". The Atlantic . Retrieved June 22, 2018.