Olmstead v. United States: The Constitutional Challenges of Prohibition Enforcement — Historical Background and Documents
A Short Narrative (http://www.fjc.gov/history/home.nsf/page/tu_olmstead_narrative.html)
In the 1920s, the national Prohibition of alcoholic beverages led to a vast increase in the federal government’s crime-fighting role and in the workload of the federal courts. The Eighteenth Amendment, ratified on January 16, 1919, prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of “intoxicating liquors,” and the amendment granted Congress and the states “concurrent power to enforce this article.” The architects of national Prohibition anticipated that the states would assume the burden of enforcement, but, in practice, much of the responsibility fell on federal officials. Prohibition enforcement required an unprecedented scale of federal policing, which soon produced an overwhelming number of criminal prosecutions in the federal courts. For the thirteen years of national Prohibition (1920–1933), cases arising from the violation of the federal Prohibition laws averaged close to two-thirds of all U.S district court cases. The number of criminal cases handled annually by the federal district courts grew from 54,487 in 1921 to 92,174 in 1932. These criminal trials also prompted appeals in every judicial circuit. By 1925, appeals of criminal convictions in the Ninth Circuit, prompted mostly by Prohibition, constituted nearly 40% of the appeals court’s work.
The increased workload in the federal courts was one of the many unexpected demands placed on the federal government by Prohibition, which redefined the government’s role in the daily lives of citizens. Inadequate federal forces confronted popular disregard or opposition to the ban on liquor, and the nearly impossible task of enforcing major changes in personal behavior threatened to erode popular respect for federal authority and the judicial process. Federal enforcement also...