Tag Archives: fourth amendment

Massachusetts supreme court says cops should have gotten warrant before obtaining cell phone location data

Court takes a “different approach” with respect to one’s expectation of privacy

After defendant’s girlfriend was murdered in 2004, the police got a “D order” (an order authorized under 18 U.S.C. 2703(d)) from a state court to compel Sprint to turn over historical cell site location information (“CSLI”) showing where defendant placed telephone calls around the time of the girlfriend’s murder. Importantly, the government did not get a warrant for this information. After the government indicted defendant seven years later, he moved to suppress the CSLI evidence arguing a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court granted the motion to suppress, and the government sought review with the Massachusetts supreme court. That court agreed, holding that a search warrant based on probable cause was required.

The government invoked the third party doctrine, arguing that no search in the constitutional sense occurred because CSLI was a business record of the defendant’s cellular service provider, a private third party. According to the government, the defendant could thus have no expectation of privacy in location information — i.e., information about the his location when using the cell phone — that he voluntarily revealed.

The court concluded that although the CSLI at issue was a business record of the defendant’s cellular service provider, he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in it, and in the circumstances of this case — where the CSLI obtained covered a two-week period — the warrant requirement of the Massachusetts constitution applied. The court made a qualitative distinction in cell phone location records to reach its conclusion:

No cellular telephone user . . . voluntarily conveys CSLI to his or her cellular service provider in the sense that he or she first identifies a discrete item of information or data point like a telephone number (or a check or deposit slip…) … In sum, even though CSLI is business information belonging to and existing in the records of a private cellular service provider, it is substantively different from the types of information and records contemplated by [the Supreme Court's seminal third-party doctrine cases]. These differences lead us to conclude that for purposes of considering the application of [the Massachusetts constitution] in this case, it would be inappropriate to apply the third-party doctrine to CSLI.

To get to this conclusion, the court avoided the question of whether obtaining the records constituted a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, but focused instead on the third party doctrine (and the expectation of privacy one has in information stored on a third party system) in relation to the Massachusetts constitution.

In a sense, though, the court gave the government another bite at the apple. It remanded the case to the trial court where the government could seek to establish that the affidavit submitted in support of its application for an order under 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d) demonstrated probable cause for the CSLI records at issue.

Commonwealth v. Augustine, — N.E.3d —, Mass. , 2014 WL 563258 (Mass. February 18, 2014)

No Fourth Amendment violation when government looked at Facebook profile using friend’s account

U.S. v. Meregildon, — F.Supp.2d —, 2012 WL 3264501 (S.D.N.Y. August 10, 2012)

The government suspected defendant was involved in illegal gang activity and secured the assistance of a cooperating witness who was a Facebook friend of defendant. Viewing defendant’s profile using the friend’s account, the government gathered evidence of probable cause (discussion of past violence, threats, and gang loyalty maintenance) which it used to swear out a search warrant.

What you do on Facebook is almost guaranteed to come back and bite you in the ass.

Defendant argued that the means by which the government obtained the probable cause evidence – by viewing content protected by defendant’s Facebook privacy settings – violated defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. The court denied defendant’s motion to suppress.

It held that where Facebook privacy settings allowed viewership of postings by friends, the Government could access them through a friend/cooperating witness without violating the Fourth Amendment. The court compared the scenario to how a person loses his legitimate expectation of privacy when the government records a phone call with the consent of a cooperating witness who participates in the call. It held that defendant’s legitimate expectation of privacy ended when he disseminated posts to his Facebook friends because those friends were then free to use the information however they wanted, including sharing it with the government.

Photo credit: Flickr user Poster Boy NYC under this Creative Commons license.

On the radio: Mobile devices and the Fourth Amendment

I was honored to be a guest on this morning’s episode of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s show Listen Out Loud, talking with host Dave Miller about the recent case of Schlossberg v. Solesbee.

Listen to the interview here:

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We talked about the Fourth Amendment and, more specifically, the exceptions to the warrant requirement for searches made incident to lawful arrests. Some courts have given special treatment to mobile devices when considering whether the information contained on them may be searched without a warrant, because of the vast amounts of personal information that is present.

Supreme Court: GPS device attached to car was an unconstitutional search

U.S. v. Jones, 565 U.S. ___ (2012)

Decision looks to 18th century sensibilities on the sanctity of personal property to resolve modern day legal problem occasioned by technology.

Today the Supreme Court issued its opinion in U.S. v. Jones, which addresses the question of whether it was a “search or seizure” under the Fourth Amendment when the police attached a GPS tracking device to a drug suspect’s car. The information gathered from the device was used to convict defendant and send him to prison for life.

An originalist kind of opinion

Justice Scalia authored an opinion (which four other justices, including Roberts and Thomas, joined) holding that the placement of the GPS device on defendant’s car was a “physical intrusion [which] would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.” Because the device was placed on the car outside the scope of the warrant authorizing it (after the warrant’s expiration and outside its geographic jurisdiction), defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated.

Property is key

Key to Court’s opinion was the Fourth Amendment’s close connection to property. Historically, Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has been tied to the concept of common-law trespass. Later cases, such as Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967) deviated from that approach, looking more to a personal interest, namely one’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Reasonable expectation of privacy does not matter here

The Government had argued that there was no search here because defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the underbody of his car, nor in the information about the public places he went. The court rejected that argument. Instead, it observed that “[a]t bottom, we must ‘assur[e] preservation of that degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted.”

This “at bottom” analysis meant looking to the property interest defendant had (as informed by principles of common law trespass). By attaching the device to defendant’s car, the officers encroached on a protected area.

Open questions about information tracking

The case involved more than the mere transmission of electronic signals. In dicta, the court noted that in cases that do not involve physical intrusion, the Katz “reasonable expectation of privacy” analysis would apply. And the court was able to skirt the thorny question of whether the pervasive gathering of information while assisted by technology (something that it would take an army of agents and vehicles to accomplish) would be unconstitutional:

It may be that achieving the same result through electronic means, without an accompanying trespass, is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, but the present case does not require us to answer that question.

Many commentators have observed that the case bears similarities to United States v. Knotts, 460 U. S. 276 (1982) which involved a location-transmitting “beeper” that was placed in a canister of chloroform, which made its way into the defendant’s trunk. In Knotts, the Court held that the gathering of location information in such a fashion did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Jones case is different — in Knotts, the cops were not reponsible for placing the canister into the vehicle. Here, the cops actually had to encroach on defendant’s property (and even changed the batteries on the device at a later date).

The Court’s decision comes as a relief to those who worried about the Orwellian-like consequences of a Government victory. It appears that all of us — including the Justices of the Supreme Court themselves — are free from indiscriminate government surveilance of this sort. It will be interesting to go back and watch This Week in Law Episode 137, where we discussed this case and its issues.

What do you think? Was the court correct in looking at 18th century doctrines to solve a 21st century problem? Let’s have a conversation below.

Cops violated Fourth Amendment in warrantless search of digital camera

Schlossberg v. Solesbee, 2012 WL 141741 (D.Or. January 18, 2012)

Plaintiff was being questioned by defendant police officer when defendant noticed plaintiff was using a digital camera to capture the exchange. The cop got enraged and took the camera away. He arrested plaintiff and looked through the files on the camera without getting a warrant.

So plaintiff filed a civil rights lawsuit. Before trial, the court asked the parties to file briefs on whether plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The court found that the warrantless search of the camera was an unlawful search incident to an arrest, thereby violating the Fourth Amendment.

In its decision, the court noted that cases which have allowed warrantless searches of electronic devices incident to arrest established a dangerous new rule, namely, that any citizen committing even the most minor arrestable offense is at risk of having his or her most intimate information viewed by an arresting officer. The court recounted the case of some cops who, in a warrantless search of a drunk driving suspect’s cell phone, found and shared some naked photos of the suspect’s girlfriend. See Newhard v. Borders, 649 F.Supp.2d 440 (W.D. Va 2009).

The court disagreed with the rationale of previous cases that held electronic devices such as phones and cameras were like “closed containers” and were thereby subject to warrantless searches. It found that warrantless searches of electronic devices are not reasonable when they are incident to a valid arrest absent a showing that the search is necessary to:

  • prevent the destruction of evidence
  • ensure officer safety, or
  • address other exigent circumstances

The court further found that all electronic devices should be subject to this broad protection — police should not have to distinguish between laptops, traditional cell phones, smart phones and cameras before deciding whether to proceed with a search of the device incident to arrest.

In sum, the court found that because plaintiff had a high expectation of privacy in his camera’s contents, defendant should not have reviewed its contents in a search incident to the arrest. He should have gotten a warrant instead.

So what do you think? Did the court get this one right?