Excerpt: Echo of its Time

The following is an excerpt from Echo of its Time: The History of the Federal District Court of Nebraska, 1867-1933 by John R. Wunder and Mark. R. Scherer (February 2019).

During the 1920s, the man chiefly responsible for the enforcement of the Prohibition laws in Nebraska was Robert Samardick. An immigrant from Montenegro in the Balkans, he worked in the iron mines of northern Minnesota in his youth before making his way to South Omaha’s growing Serbian community. He was a “spy chaser” in the counterintelligence service during the war and then returned to Nebraska in 1919, where he joined the Omaha Police Department and “quickly gained a reputation as a tough officer on the morals squad” before resigning to become a federal Prohibition agent in 1920. With a teetotaler’s zeal for punishing immorality and an apparently sincere belief in the need to vigorously and impartially enforce the nation’s new liquor laws, Samardick quickly gained renown as “Raiding Bob,” both admired and feared for his aggressive and frequent raids against bootleggers, still operators, and retailers of illicit liquor. His calling cards were a swinging ax and rubber boots, as he and his agents frequently burst through doors and chopped up stills, before pouring thousands of gallons of whiskey, beer, and wine into streets, sewers, or creeks. Samardick’s investigations and raids often tested the limits of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, as he routinely smashed his way into suspects’ homes and businesses, often without warrants and armed only with debatable degrees of “probable cause.” These and other volatile issues, combined with the massive numbers of his arrests, made Samardick a familiar figure in both Munger’s and Woodrough’s courtrooms throughout the Prohibition years.

Tales of “Raiding Bob’s” exploits are endless. Not only was he often arrested himself for injuring suspects during his raids, but he was also frequently shot at, bribed, or otherwise threatened by his adversaries. Still, he and his team of agents kept raiding, and the charges brought both by and against him continued to mount. In 1925 alone, Samardick and his men faced prosecution by state and county authorities for more than a dozen alleged assaults. The Douglas County attorney claimed that he was “trying to keep federal officers from beating up our citizens,” but Samardick remained unbowed and unrepentant. He admitted that he and his agents occasionally “smacked the noses of bootleggers who resist us,” but then vowed that “we’re going to continue smacking them when they resist. . . . This won’t stop us from enforcing the law fearlessly as we have in the past.” In one of those 1925 cases, he was acquitted by a jury in Woodrough’s court for punching a cab driver in the face and was then hauled into court a few months later for allegedly assaulting a female suspect named Lillian Laux, who happened to be a friend of Nebraska senator Robert Howell. After smashing through the front door at the home of Laux’s grandmother, Samardick allegedly pinned the young woman to the ground, twisting her arm while questioning her about possible liquor in the house. In yet another incident a few years later, he pleaded guilty to assaulting a postal worker who he claimed had made disparaging comments about one of his former agents and received a $150 fine from Munger. Despite the controversy that his methods produced, Samardick became one of the favorites of federal law enforcement leaders, who often praised his work and brought him to Washington and other eastern cities to train other Prohibition agents. Meanwhile, the “wet” and progressive Omaha World-Herald began to refer routinely to the targets of Samardick’s raids as his “victims.

Given their opposing viewpoints on both the merits of Prohibition and the limits of police power, Samardick and Woodrough seemed destined for conflict. It was not long in coming. One of their most prominent clashes came in 1923, when Samardick obtained a warrant and raided an Omaha pharmacy, finding clear evidence of liquor violations. At trial, however, Woodrough sustained the defendants’ motion to dismiss the charges. In a pathbreaking decision styled United States v. Musgrave that prompted banner headlines in local newspapers and alarmed law enforcement officials nationwide, he held that Prohibition agents like Samardick, operating under the auspices of the U.S. Treasury Department, were not “civil officers” authorized to execute federal search warrants. After first deciding that “the Prohibition officer in question [Samardick] is clearly not a civil officer in any strict or constitutional sense,” Woodrough observed that “the real question here is whether the term ‘civil officer’ may be given a popular and less strict meaning.” He acknowledged that federal courts in other states had in fact adopted a less technical meaning of the phrase, but nevertheless he concluded, “I find myself unable to concur.” Using language that endeared him to civil libertarians and “wets” all over the country, he declared:

I am persuaded that a strict and literal observance of all limitations incorporated in the law concerning the issuance of search warrants is not only in accordance with the historical tradition and spirit of our law, but it appears equally clear that Congress, in the Volstead Act itself, imperatively commands the maintenance of the specified limitations. . . . It is probable that no greater hindrance to the effective and successful enforcement of the National Prohibition Act could arise than a persistent ignoring of the limitation put by law upon searches and seizures.

Despite the notoriety of Woodrough’s ruling, it had little practical effect on the specific parties involved in the case. The bootlegging pharmacist who had escaped conviction continued selling moonshine from his drugstore, and Samardick went right back after him, this time bringing along a federal marshal to formally serve the warrant. Woodrough once again presided over the trial, and a jury convicted the pharmacist on thirteen counts.

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