Massiah v. United States: Case & Summary

Instructor: Jason Tauches

Jason is a writer and attorney who holds a Juris Doctor and a Master of Laws as well as an MFA in Creative Writing

In this lesson, you will learn about the U.S. Supreme Court case Massiah v. United States and how its ruling affected Sixth Amendment law in the United States as well as the application of the exclusionary rule to the case.


In 1958, Massiah was a merchant seaman aboard the S.S. Santa Maria. Federal narcotics agents in New York received a tip that Massiah would be transporting illegal narcotics from South America to the United States aboard the ship. When the ship arrived in port, agents searched the ship, found three and a half pounds of cocaine in five packages, and arrested Massiah. He was charged with possession of narcotics aboard a vessel of the United States. As the investigation into the crime continued, Massiah and another person, Colson, were jointly charged with the crime, as well as conspiracy to possess narcotics and to import, conceal, and facilitate the sale of narcotics. Massiah retained a lawyer and pleaded not guilty at arraignment. He and his co-defendant, Colson, were released on bail. As the investigation progressed, Colson decided to cooperate with federal agents. He agreed to let Murphy, an agent of the federal government, install a radio transmitter in Colson's car. Colson, at this point, would be considered an agent of the government as he was cooperating with the government in its investigation. Massiah met with Colson on the evening of November 19, 1959. They had a lengthy conversation in Colson's car, a conversation which Agent Murphy listened in on through the radio transmitter. Massiah made incriminating statements during the conversation which were relayed to the jury through the testimony of Agent Murphy over Massiah's strenuous objection. Massiah was convicted and appealed the conviction on the grounds that the admission of the evidence of the conversation violated Massiah's Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment Rights.

Questions Before the Court

Does the use of radio equipment to gather evidence against Massiah violate his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure? Does the admission of evidence of the interrogation of a defendant without his lawyer present, who has already retained counsel and pleaded not guilty to a crime, by an agent of the government, violate the defendant's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and/or his Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel?


The Sixth Amendment states that In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense. The right to assistance of counsel attaches at the first critical stage in judicial proceedings and remains with a defendant until the end of judicial proceedings. This means that at any time the defendant is presented to a government agent or the court, his counsel is required to be with him or her, unless the defendant waives the presence of counsel. All statements made by the defendant during a government interrogation with counsel not present will be excluded from trial under the exclusionary rule.


The government argued that the evidence against Massiah should not have been excluded because it was the government's duty to continue to investigate Massiah. The government suspected that Massiah was one part of a large ring of drug smugglers bringing illegal narcotics into the United States. The government had a duty to find all of the members of the criminal enterprise, including the intended buyer.

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