A Miami Beach man was recently accused of threatening President Trump on Twitter. He sent the threat directly to Secret Service, challenging them to stop his Inauguration Day surprise. They did, and Dominic Puopolo, who used the screen name of Lord Jesus Christ, is now in federal custody.
Sending a threat to the President, to an ex-wife, or to a judge is a federal felony, punishable by as much as 20 years in the federal penitentiary. But what constitutes a threat? What if the person sending a letter or email is merely angry and has no intention of carrying out the threat? What if the author is demonstrably suffering from mental problems? And are there times where the pre-trial process greatly exceeds the length and difficulty of the eventual trial of a threats case?
When it comes to threatening communication prosecutions, federal prosecutors are increasingly finding themselves stuck at the intersection of crazy and criminal. It is a juncture where seemingly serious threats might actually be meaningless rambling but where internet rants might actually reflect a true intent to harm or kill the stated victim. And in today’s bitter, divided, and tumultuous political climate, would anyone bet against threatening communications being sent to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? If so, please contact me, as I’ll definitely take the other side of that wager.
“The President must die. When I am released I will kill him.” U.S. v. Rendelman, 641 F.3d 36, 40 (4th Cir. 2011).
[If the President refuses to meet with me, he] “will get the worse Christmas present ever, “will suffer for 30 days,” and “will wish for death but death will not come for him.” U.S. v. Dillon, 738 F.3d, 284, 288 (D.C. Cir. 2013).
“Enough elementary schools in a ten-mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined…And hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a Kindergarten class.” U.S. v. Elonis, 135 S. Ct. 2001, 2006 (2015).
The Easy Case
Certainly, a decent chunk of these prosecutions stem from imprisoned inmates taking the time to send a “I can’t wait to kill you” letter to their prosecutor (usually spelled “persecutor” in these letters) or to the judge who sentenced them to the “outrageous” sentence, often a term of imprisonment that lies perfectly within the sentencing guidelines. Further, these jail bards conveniently tend to include a return address, handwriting suitable for comparison, their name and even their inmate number, to so to avoid confusion. The sole issue in this type of case tends to be simply whether additional consecutive time will make any sort of difference to our “Cape Fear” penitentiary pal.
The Harder Case
Creatively worded threats, however, occasionally generate serious issues as to sufficiency. For example, in U.S. v. Zavrel, 384 F.3d 130 (3rd Cir. 2004), the defendant and her roommate mailed 17 envelopes containing corn starch to juveniles whom she blamed for her son’s juvenile prosecution for, wait for it, terroristic threats. The corn starch resembled anthrax, a deadly chemical that had in fact been mailed to several potential victims in late 2001. The issue decided by the Third Circuit was whether the simple mailing of corn starch established a “communication” for purposes of proving a threatening mailing under 18 U.S.C. Section 876. It was.
The other common issue, which made its way all the way to the Supreme Court, is whether the sender of the threat has to in fact intend to harm the recipient (subjective standard) or whether the sender must simply intend to communicate threatening words which are reasonably understood by the recipient to constitute a threat (objective standard). In Elonis, (2015) Chief Justice Robert’s opinion adopted the latter standard, resolving a Circuit-split that had existed for some time. Still, the issue of whether the recipient reasonably views the letter or email as a threat remains a regular feature of these cases.
The Hardest Case
The hard case is when the defendant says horrible things that are directed toward some public, possibly political figure, but it’s not clear that he or she constitutes a “true threat” to the recipient. And, the defendant already is serving a substantial prison sentence. These are the class of cases that the federal criminal justice system is least likely to deal with in a satisfactory way. There tends to be a perfect storm of factors coming together to complicate the superficially simple case: “important” victims, such as judges, the President, or prosecutors; a defendant with a serious, pre-existing mental health problem, and threatening language that is both graphic and somewhat implausible.
For example, one defendant claimed that he literally would crucify his intended victim, before signing off with “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” and some defendants openly discuss the jurisprudence of threatening communications while enlightening readers to the fact that a person “who placed a mortar launcher in the cornfield across from his wife’s residence would have a clear line of sight through the sun room…” Elonis, at 2005. And the man who threatened President Trump via Twitter casually mentioned that he is Jesus.
The typical court process for such a case is that the judge orders a mental health evaluation for competency, which results in the prisoner being shuttled to one of several federal facilities which include competency and criminal responsibility assessments. Not surprisingly, some of these defendants are kept months before they decide not to take the prescribed medications, often based upon the belief that the prison medical personnel are just part of a grand conspiracy that continues to manifest itself through each of the defendant’s cases. Not a lightly undertaken process, forcible medication of a defendant requires significant, and often lengthy, litigation as well. To the extent that the defendants fire their attorneys out of frustration, a fairly common development, the case slows to a snail’s pace.
And this becomes the most obvious challenge to the criminal justice system in this realm – the defendant, clearly suffering from some mental deficiency, is incarcerated pre-verdict for longer than his applicable sentencing guidelines and in some instances at, or approaching, the statutory maximum for his crime. Yet, he may in fact pose a danger to the recipient of his threat, so dismissing the charge is not a favored result either. In the current climate where the likelihood of these challenging cases is on the rise, the question is whether anyone or any institution will take the lead in balancing ideas of deterrence and punishment with the practical reality that many of these defendants fall outside the mainstream in terms of mental health as well as case resolution. Nobody wants to travel down the wrong road at this intersection, so bet on reaction, not pro-action.
Federal Criminal (Other), Federal Criminal Procedure, Federal Sentencing, White-collar crime
It sits in your house, passively recording everything you say. It knows what you like. It knows what you listen to. It knows what you buy. It knows who’s in the room with you. And now, it might tell the police all about it.
“It” is the Amazon Echo, a revolution in the “internet of things.” The Echo is a smart speaker that connects directly to Amazon’s cloud-based personal assistant service, Alexa. It can play music; give you the traffic, weather, and news; handle your shopping; put things on your calendar; play games; and even respond appropriately to a wide array of cultural references, all in response to voice commands. If you have the right add-ons, Alexa can even control your entire home, dimming your lights, adjusting the thermostat, and locking the doors.
It does this by passively listening for a given activation phrase—the default is “Alexa.” Generally, Alexa does not record anything else (although it may store up to sixty seconds at a time in a buffer). Once it hears its name, Alexa will begin recording and will send what follows to Amazon for processing—both to respond to a given request, and to store to improve responsiveness later. On one hand, this means that Amazon is not actually recording everything you say, but only those specific commands directed to Alexa. On the other hand, it means that Alexa is always listening.
This became relevant in a recent murder case in Bentonville Arkansas, in which police obtained a warrant for recordings from Amazon of commands given to the suspect’s Echo. It is far from clear what police hope to gain from these recordings; they have a large amount of traditional evidence and, unless the murderer specifically asked Alexa for help, the recordings are unlikely to be incriminating. Nevertheless, an attempt by police to seek recordings from a device that is virtually always listening to us in our homes is extremely disturbing.
These efforts are made even more concerning by recent court rulings on cell phone location data. According to two federal appellate courts, because cell phones send this information to a third party (that is, to cell phone and app providers), it is not considered sufficiently private for protection from searches and seizures. That means that police can access this data—which often allows an individual to be physically tracked from moment-to-moment—without even requesting a warrant.
If this principle is upheld by the Supreme Court (which, so far, has refused to consider the issue), it would mean that police could access daily recordings from the privacy of your own home on little more than a hunch and an informal request. Though many may say they have nothing to hide, I doubt most of us would be comfortable knowing a police officer was looking over our shoulder twenty-four hours a day.
There is one barrier to that terrifying outcome, which is that Amazon has refused to comply with the Bentonville warrant and officers there have decided not to press the issue. Like Apple, Amazon has taken it upon itself to protect its customers’ privacy. But a private company cannot be expected to be the defender of its customers’ civil rights forever.
But until the law catches up to the state of technology, every one of our devices is capable of being turned into an informant against us. And though Alexa can do a lot, it has yet to learn how to invoke its Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Until it does, you might want to think twice before inviting Alexa–and potentially the police–into your home.
Rather than confront accusations of baseless zeal and prosecutorial overreach, New York federal prosecutor Preet Bharara would rather spend his energy dodging accountability.
In 2010, Bharara launched a crusade against Wall Street, prosecuting several hedge funds he suspected of insider trading. Highly publicized raids followed. In the wake of the financial meltdown, Bharara was hailed as a hero. A Time cover story proclaimed, “This Man Is Busting Wall St.”
But many of those prosecutions went nowhere. A federal appellate court rejected the legal theory that the prosecutions were built on, and many cases were simply dropped. The SEC even agreed to return some of the money it had seized from several hedge funds.
This was cold comfort to people like David Ganek, the manager of Level Global—one of several hedge funds shut down by Bharara’s inquisition. Even while the case was pending, Bharara all but acknowledged that he meant to shutter Level Global, without regard for the presumption of innocence.
Sadly, even when defendants are harmed by prosecutorial overreach, broad immunity doctrines make it nearly impossible for the wrongly prosecuted to get justice.
But Ganek’s case involved more than just excessive zeal: the warrant used to raid Level Global depended on a false statement. A former employee of Level Global had told federal agents that Ganek did not know he was using information from corporate insiders, but the warrant application falsely said that Ganek did know. That gave Ganek a rare opportunity: federal agents can be shielded for overreaching, but there is no protection for lying.
Ganek sued officials from both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI (Ganek v. Leibowitz), claiming that the use of the false statement to prosecute him had violated his constitutional right against unreasonable searches and his due process rights. In March, a federal judge ruled that Ganek’s claim could go forward, rejecting claims of governmental immunity.
In most civil cases, overcoming this initial step is a big deal. It would allow Ganek to conduct discovery—that is, to investigate the facts behind his case by methods that can include obtaining documents from prosecutors and the FBI and depositions of federal officials under oath. This process can be extremely onerous—the cost of document production and the risks of laying bare a defendant’s inner workings to a hostile adversary have forced many defendants into settling dubious lawsuits. In addition to uncovering misrepresentations tied to his own case, Ganek also could investigate the conduct of federal officials more generally and, perhaps, even the supervisory practices of prosecutors and the FBI.
In a typical case, there would be no way to avoid this except by an expensive settlement—likely including a premium for avoiding discovery. But this is no typical case, and Preet Bharara is no typical litigant. Although most of us in Bharara’s position would have to wait until the end of a federal case before filing a single, final appeal, Bharara has relied on a narrow legal doctrine that allows him to appeal the court’s decision immediately, based on his claims of immunity. As a result, the court has delayed discovery and other proceedings indefinitely. Instead of accepting the need for transparency and letting Ganek be made whole for his wrongful prosecution, Bharara’s office will get a second bite at the apple by rearguing the issue of immunity in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
It is hard to imagine that Bharara will prevail on appeal—immunity does not cover outright lies by federal agents. Yet by belaboring a weak immunity argument, Bharara can postpone having to answer for the actions of his office for months, if not longer, while creating additional costs and burdens for Ganek.
This case goes beyond Ganek’s personal quest for justice. Civil suits like this are important for holding public officials accountable and can provide a window into how they operate. Bharara’s resistance sends a discomforting message: however merciless he may be towards his suspects, he should bear no consequences for his actions.
We’ll see if Ganek can prove him wrong.
Does the federal government have the right to seize a domain name without notice? With growing frequency, the feds have seized the domain names of thousands of websites for alleged criminal wrongdoing. The latest example is the seizure earlier this week of 67 website domain names for the alleged illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit and prescription drugs.
There still is little information publicly available on the recent seizure. The Justice Department issued a short new release with a statement from U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles, in which he noted,
It’s important for consumers to understand the significant risks involved in purchasing pharmaceutical drugs from these websites. The generic versions of these prescription drugs are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and cannot be distributed in the United States legally. To be safe and effective, prescription drugs must be taken under the care and supervision of appropriate health care professionals; not purchased off the internet from unknown and unregulated foreign sources.
Whether or not the sites facilitated the alleged criminal behavior remains to be decided by a judicial proceeding (if the case ever gets to that point). Federal agents can obtain a seizure order based merely upon probable cause set forth in an affidavit. That’s a relatively low bar considering the consequences of domain name seizures.
The only recourse for the sites at this point is to file a petition with a federal court to contest the forfeiture. Contesting a forfeiture is an uphill—and oftentimes protracted—battle. In the meantime the businesses operating through those domain names are effectively shut down, if the seized websites were their main channel of business. Once the feds carry out a domain name seizure, the “offending” sites will show a seizure banner notifying any visitors that the domain name has been seized by federal authorities for violations of federal laws. No business can be done on the site and the chances of visitors returning are slim.
So how is it okay for a domain name to be seized based on the allegation of a crime, before proper notice and hearing? The feds are taking advantage of a process known as an in rem proceeding, whereby they can file suit against the offending property itself for its alleged role in facilitating criminal conduct. Typically in rem proceedings are filed against tangible assets like a car involved in a drug deal or a bank account used to funnel illegal funds. But in recent years, in rem proceedings have been used by both state and federal agencies against domain names in order to crack down on alleged criminal behavior carried out through the websites. Examples include (1) the Justice Department’s “In Our Sites” operation in which it seized the domain names of thousands of sites accused of violating U.S. copyright laws and (2) the state of Kentucky’s attempt to seize 141 domain names of online poker sites.
Despite the increasing use of pretrial domain name seizures, the legality is still hotly debated by civil liberties groups, free market advocates, and international organizations. These groups raise constitutional concerns, such as due process and restraint on free speech, as well as jurisdictional concerns, such as federal or state authority to reach domain names owned by foreign individuals or entities. The biggest issue is that an in rem proceeding is inappropriate against domain names because a domain name is not property – it is a contractual right that, as such, should not be subject to seizure. We will discuss these concerns in more detail in a coming post once we learn more about the Justice Department’s recent actions against the 67 pharmaceutical domain names.
There are limits to what the government can take from you. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Constitution forbids the government from freezing a defendant’s “untainted” assets in advance of prosecution. The ruling is a significant victory for those caught in the government’s crosshairs. It is also a significant victory for a traditional concept of justice, which prefers to err on the side of the accused over government agents.
In its decision in Luis v. U.S., the high court agreed with a criminal defendant who argued that her Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated when the government froze assets unrelated to allegedly criminal behavior. Without access to those funds, the defendant would be unable to retain the attorney of her choice.
The Court considered the government’s interest in preserving funds to pay restitution and criminal penalties, but concluded that a defendant’s right to counsel is “fundamental,” outweighing any interest the government mightultimately have: “[The government’s] interests are important, but — compared to the right to counsel — they seem to lie somewhat further from the heart of a fair, effective criminal justice system.”
In a 5-3 ruling, the Court based its decision on this balancing test, as well as on traditional understandings of common law, which distinguish between assets directly related to alleged criminal behavior and assets considered “innocent” or untainted. The Court found no legal precedent to authorize “unfettered, pretrial forfeiture of the defendant’s own ‘innocent’ property.” Moreover, the Court highlighted concerns that the government’s position has no obvious stopping point and could erode defendants’ right to counsel considerably.
Encroaching on the Sixth Amendment is but one of the several concerns posed by the government’s growing love of forfeiture — it has become too handy of a tool in prosecutors’ pockets — but it is perhaps the gravest concern, as it threatens an individual’s ability to effectively defend him or herself. It puts defendants at a significant disadvantage: they want to obtain the best representation they can afford in order to defend themselves, but they may not be able to afford any if the government freezes all their assets in the hope of confiscating them after a conviction. They may be left begging friends and family to help fund their defense or relying upon overburdened public defenders to represent them. The government’s tactic is the courtroom equivalent of inviting an opponent to a boxing match and then tying one hand behind his back.
The criminal defense bar has decried government’s overuse of asset forfeiture for years. While the government has argued that pre-trial asset seizure is justified in order to preserve its ability to recover funds and penalties, the process has been used to try to deter behavior by making an example of people. Moreover, pre-trial asset seizure looks a lot like presumed guilt, as opposed to presumed innocence. The occasional constitutionally minded congressional representative has tried to curb forfeiture overuse through legislative initiatives, but these bills keep getting left to die in committees and subcommittees. It is nice to see some effective limits placed on the practice by the Court.
Justice Thomas, in a concurring opinion, took issue with Justice Breyer’s opinion “balancing” the state’s interest against individuals’ constitutional rights. He argued the Sixth Amendment prevents the government from seizing untainted assets, period; there is no need to consider a balancing approach. But at least the plurality of the Court recognized that, when balancing the government’s interests in the outcome of a case against the individual’s right to adequately defend him or herself, you should err on the side of the individual.
If that means the state sometimes loses out on full satisfaction of a monetary judgment, that is preferable to defendants being prevented from mounting an effective defense. More wrongful convictions would result from that policy, and the seizure of a few more dollars from the truly guilty would be no consolation. If there is any question whether historically we have favored individual rights over the state’s interests in criminal prosecutions, look only to the Bill of Rights. Justice demands that if anyone’s hand is to be tied in the courtroom, it should be the hand of the government.
This article first appeared February 29, 2016, on FEE.org – you can access this version here.
Remember Martin Shkreli, the “pharma bro” notorious for raising the price of his company’s life-saving drug by some 5,000 percent? Did you know he was recently arrested for securities fraud (completely unrelated to the drug hike)? It didn’t take long for the Justice Department to go after the universally unpopular rapscallion.
Big government gets a bad rap for being inefficient, but it can cut to the chase rather swiftly when it wants to. In order to stop, or at least dramatically curb, behavior that goes against law or policy — or perhaps just opinion — government enforcement agents know how to employ a show of force and to make an example of someone they deem a wrongdoer. The punishment is public and can be severe.
Setting an Example
A recent show of force can be seen in federal actions against the dietary supplement industry. The industry has exploded in recent years, thanks in large part to the public’s growing love for health and homeopathy. The popularity has, predictably, attracted moneymakers of both the scrupulous and unscrupulous kind.
The government wants to rein in the industry, so to set an example it has come down hard on one company. USPlabs was one of more than 100 makers and marketers of dietary supplements against whom the Justice Department announced it was pursuing civil and criminal cases. But the company had the unfortunate luck to become the government’s example of what it can do to wrongdoers. Not only did the DOJ charge the company; it also indicted several of its executives and froze their assets — from investment accounts to homes to automobiles.
Do the Ends Justify the Meanness?
The government’s heavy hand on USPlabs is the kind of crackdown you expect against organized crime or large drug rings. What were the criminal defendants at USPlabs alleged to have done? Not exactly Sopranos-level stuff: importing ingredients with false certificates of analysis and false labeling, misrepresenting the source and nature of product ingredients, selling products without determining safety, and continuing to sell products after they told agents they would stop.
If the allegations are true, the defendants’ actions were wrong. But public arrests and asset seizure are extreme. How often do people accused of false labeling get perp walked? The DOJ’s tactics look like shock-and-awe theater for the benefit of others.
If there is any doubt whether the government wanted to use its hard-line approach against USPlabs as an example for other companies, look no further than this statement by FDA Deputy Commissioner Howard Sklamberg: “The criminal charges against USPlabs should serve as notice to industry that if products are a threat to public health, the FDA will exercise its full authority under the law to bring justice.”
In other words, makers and marketers of dietary supplements: beware!
You may think the Justice Department performed a public service by coming down so hard on Shkreli and USPlabs. Why should we care if the government crushes some scalawags and discourages others in the process?
What if the government’s show of force comes at the cost of a defendant’s due process rights? Shkreli has said that the feds targeted him because of the drug price hike, looking for anything to stop him. Now he’s been fired and his company has filed for bankruptcy. That’s a pretty high price to pay for being obnoxious.
While deterrence may be an acceptable basis for punishment, it doesn’t justify punishment that exceeds the crime. Arresting executives and seizing their personal bank accounts, homes, and cars in an instance like this is excessive. More commonly in cases like USPlabs, prosecutors will settle with the company, levy a fine against it, require it to institute controls to avoid further wrongdoing, and perhaps require it to be monitored for a while to ensure controls are being observed.
Going after the individual executives as if they were Mafia kingpins goes beyond the pale. Freezing or seizing assets is something that prosecutors more commonly do when those assets are being used to carry out criminal behavior, or when there is a great risk those assets will be disposed of before judicial proceedings. Chances are slim that the executives in the USPlabs matter were planning on liquidating their family homes or cars.
Yet Another Slippery Slope
For those who think the government is on the right side in its show of force, ask yourselves whether the government isn’t pursuing its initiatives (even reasonable initiatives like reining in fraud) a bit brutishly. Making an example of an alleged wrongdoer even before the wrongdoer’s day in court harkens back to techniques used by conquerors in days of old who put heads on pikes to show the subjugated just who was in charge.
And what if the government decides to crack down on behavior not so clearly reprehensible? Say the government decides to put speeding in check by jailing a few folks going modestly over the limit. How many of us would feel safer?
Even when we dislike the targets of prosecutorial zeal, supporting justice is in our self-interest. When the government sets aside due process and proportionality to set an example of other would-be wrongdoers, they are sacrificing justice for the sake of regulatory expediency.
FBI Director James Comey took a rare break from the posturing typical of investigators and prosecutors in the current showdown between Apple and the FBI. While prosecutors argue that Apple’s privacy concerns are a smokescreen to avoid “assist[ing] the effort to fully investigate a deadly terrorist attack,” Comey posted a statement over the weekend in which he took the position that the tension between security and privacy “should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living. It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before.”
Comey’s statement highlights a crucial problem with the development of privacy law: it often is developed in the context of important criminal cases. This comes at a real cost. We all know that Syed Farook committed a horrific crime, and any rights he once had against government searches are now forfeit. But though Apple may have chosen to serve as a limited proxy for its consumers in the San Bernardino case, often the interests of private citizens are wholly absent from the courtroom (or, often, judge’s chambers) when issues of fundamental privacy are debated.
This leads to a serious imbalance: Apple is talking about the diffuse privacy rights of its consumers and the risks of potential incursions by more restrictive, less democratic governments such as China. On the other hand, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance can point to 175 Apple devices that he cannot physically access even though those devices may contain evidence helpful to the government.
New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and one of his deputies put an even finer point on it in an Op-Ed in The New York Times, citing a specific case of a murder victim in Louisiana (more than one thousand miles outside of Mr. Bratton’s jurisdiction) whose murder is unsolved because officers cannot unlock her iPhone, which is believed to contain her killer’s identity. “How is not solving a murder, or not finding the message that might stop the next terrorist attack, protecting anyone?” asks Bratton.
But in assuming that private citizens have no greater fear than whether the police can investigate and prevent crimes, Bratton begs the question. In reality, citizens may see law enforcement as a threat of itself. Learning that the NSA was engaging in comprehensive warrantless surveillance likely has given many law-abiding Americans a greater incentive to protect their data from being accessed by the government. Indeed, in light of the NYPD’s record over the last few years—including a finding by a federal judge that they were systematically violating the rights of black New Yorkers and a lawsuit over religion-based spying on Muslims—it is not hard to see why citizens might want protection against Bratton’s police force.
But even if the police were the angels they purport to be, opening a door for a white hat can easily allow access to a black one. Less than a year ago, hackers used a “brute force” approach to exploit a flaw in iCloud’s security, and dozens of celebrities had their private photos shared with the world. These sex crimes are all but forgotten in the context of the San Bernardino shootings, even though the security weakness the FBI wants installed in Farook’s iPhone is markedly similar to that exploited with respect to iCloud.
Nor do those who wish for privacy need to invoke hackers or criminals. A private, intimate moment with a spouse or loved one; a half-finished poem, story, or work of art; or even a professional relationship with a doctor or mental health professional cannot exist unless they can remain private. Once these interactions took place in spoken, unrecorded conversations or on easily discarded paper; now many of our daily activities are carried out on our mobile devices. Even if one has nothing to hide, many citizens might balk at the prospect of having to preserve their private conversations in a format readily accessible by the police.
But if Mr. Comey has shown unusual insight, Mr. Bratton’s one-sided, myopic question illustrates the importance of Apple’s position and the inability of law enforcement officials to be objective about the interests at stake. Police and prosecutors are not always your friends or your defenders. Their goals are—and always will be—investigating and solving crimes and convicting suspected criminals. The less an officer knows, the harder it will be to investigate a case. As a result, privacy rights—even when asserted by innocent, law-abiding citizens—make their job more difficult, and many officers see those rights as simply standing in their way.
This is hardly news. Nearly sixty years ago the Supreme Court observed that officers, “engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime,” are simply not capable of being neutral in criminal investigations. For precisely that reason, the Fourth Amendment requires them to seek approval from a “neutral and detached magistrate” before a search warrant may issue.
That is why Mr. Comey’s acknowledgement that the FBI is not a disinterested party is so refreshing. Pro-law-enforcement voices have been clamoring to require Apple to compromise the security it built into the iPhone, invoking their role as public servants to buttress their credibility. But when it comes to privacy, the police do not—and cannot—represent the public interest. As Comey acknowledged, they are “investigators,” and privacy rights will always stand as an obstacle to investigation.
It is a well-known maxim that “bad facts make bad law.” And as anybody even casually browsing social media this week likely has seen, the incredibly tragic facts surrounding the San Bernadino attacks last December have led to a ruling that jeopardizes the privacy rights of all law-abiding Americans.
First, it is important to clearly understand the ruling. After the horrific attack in San Bernadino on December 2, 2015, the FBI seized and searched many possessions of shooters Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in their investigation of the attack. One item seized was Farook’s Apple iPhone5C. The iPhone itself was locked and passcode-protected, but the FBI was able to obtain backups from Farook’s iCloud account. These backups stopped nearly six weeks before the shootings, suggesting that Farook had disabled the automatic feature and that his phone may contain additional information helpful to the investigation.
Under past versions of iOS, the iPhone’s operating system, Apple had been able to pull information off of a locked phone in similar situations. However, Farook’s iPhone—like all newer models—contains security features that make that impossible. First, the data on the phone is encrypted with a complex key that is hardwired into the device itself. This prevents the data from being transferred to another computer (a common step in computer forensics known as “imaging”) in a usable format. Second, the iPhone itself will not run any software that does not contain a digital “signature” from Apple. This prevents the FBI from loading its own forensic software onto Farook’s iPhone. And third, to operate the iPhone requires a numeric passcode; each incorrect passcode will lock out a user for an increasing length of time, and the tenth consecutive incorrect passcode entry will delete all data on the phone irretrievably. This prevents the FBI from trying to unlock the iPhone without a real risk of losing all of its contents.
As Apple CEO Tim Cook has explained, this system was created deliberately to ensure the security of its users’ personal data against all threats. Indeed, even Apple itself cannot access its customers’ encrypted data. This creates a unique problem for the FBI. It is well-settled that, pursuant to a valid search warrant, a court can order a third party to assist law enforcement agents with a search by providing physical access to equipment, unlocking a door, providing camera footage, or even giving technical assistance with unlocking or accessing software or devices. And, as the government has acknowledged, Apple has “routinely” provided such assistance when it has had the ability to access the data on an iPhone.
But while courts have required third parties to unlock doors, they have never required them to reverse-engineer a key. That is what sets this case apart: to assist the government, Apple would have to create something that not only does not exist, but that it deliberately declined to create in the first instance.
On February 16, Assistant U.S. Attorneys in Los Angeles filed an ex parte motion (that is, without providing Apple with notice or a chance to respond) in federal court seeking to require Apple to create a new piece of software that would (1) disable the auto-erase feature triggered by too many failed passcode attempts and (2) eliminate the delays between failed passcode attempts. In theory, this software is to work only on Farook’s iPhone and no other. This would allow the FBI to use a computer to simply try all of the possible passcodes in rapid succession in a “brute force” attack on the phone. That same day, Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym signed what appears to be an unmodified version of the order proposed by the government, ordering Apple to comply or to respond within five business days.
Though Apple has not filed a formal response, CEO Tim Cook already has made waves by publicly stating that Apple will oppose the order. In a clear and well-written open letter, Cook explains that Apple made the deliberate choice not to build a backdoor into the iPhone because to do so would fatally undermine the encryption measures built in. He explains that the notion that Apple could create specialized software for Farook’s iPhone only is a myth, and that “[o]nce created, this technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key . . . .”
This has re-ignited the long-standing debate over the proper balance between individual privacy and security (and the debate over whether the two principles truly are opposed to one another). This is all to the good, but misses a key point: Judge Pym’s order, if it stands, has not only short-circuited this debate, it ignores the resolution that Congress already reached on the issue.
Indeed, a 1994 law known as the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (“CALEA”) appears to prohibit exactly what the government requested here. Though CALEA preserved the ability of law enforcement to execute wiretaps after changing technology made that more complicated than physically “tapping” a telephone line, it expressly does not require that information service providers or equipment manufacturers do anything to open their consumers to government searches. But instead of addressing whether that purpose-built law permits the type of onerous and far-reaching order that was granted here, both the government and the court relied only on the All Writs Act—the two-century-old catch-all statute that judges rely on when ordering parties to unlock doors or turn over security footage.
Though judges frequently must weigh in and issue binding decisions on fiercely contested matters of great importance, they rarely do so with so little explanation, or after such short consideration of the matter. Indeed, when the government sought an identical order this past October in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., Magistrate Judge James Orenstein asked for briefs from Apple, the government, and a group of privacy rights organizations and, four months later, has yet to issue an opinion. Yet Judge Pym granted a similar order, without any stated justification, the same day that it was sought.
An order that is so far-reaching, so under-explained, and so clearly legally incorrect is deeply concerning. And yet, but for Apple’s choice to publicize its opposition, this unjustified erosion of our privacy could have happened under the radar and without any way to un-ring the bell. Fortunately, we appear to have avoided that outcome, and we can hope that Apple’s briefing will give the court the additional legal authority—and the additional time—that it will need to revisit its ruling.
The government has voluntarily dismissed its case against Jae Shik Kim, the South Korean businessman for whom Ifrah Law obtained a motion to suppress in federal court. In 2012, Mr. Kim was stopped by federal agents as he tried to board a plane to South Korea from LAX. The government seized his laptop and copied his hard drive based on suspicion that he had engaged in illegal activity years earlier. The government indicted Mr. Kim based on evidence it found on the laptop relating to past transactions.
Everyone who has been through a security checkpoint at an airport knows that the government has wide latitude to conduct certain warrantless searches at the border without any suspicion of illegal conduct. However, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia concurred with Ifrah Law’s argument that the government’s latitude is wide, but it is not unbounded. In order to conduct a non-routine search of electronics at the border–including copying a hard drive for the government to conduct a later search unbounded in time and scope—the government must have reasonable suspicion that the owner is presently engaged or will imminently engage in illegal activity. An ongoing investigation of suspected past criminal activity is not a sufficient basis on which to perform such a search. To use a border search for that purpose is an illegal attempt to circumvent the warrant requirements imposed by the Fourth Amendment to obtain evidence in an ongoing investigation, and any evidence obtained in that manner cannot be used to convict the defendant.
The government understood that when the court suppressed the evidence obtained from Mr. Kim’s laptop, it did not have a case on which it could obtain a conviction. Shortly after the court granted Ifrah Law’s motion to suppress, the government filed an interlocutory appeal of the court’s order. The government hoped that the Court of Appeals would reverse the order and allow the government to present evidence obtained from the laptop in order to secure a conviction.
This week, the government reversed course. The government not only dropped its appeal on the suppression issue, but moved to dismiss the indictment entirely, resulting in an event all too rare in the criminal justice system—a dismissal of all charges against the defendant. The government’s action implicitly acknowledges restrictions on its authority to conduct non-routine searches at the border when there is no suspicion of present criminal activity. It is a big win not only for our client, but for the ongoing effort to preserve our right to privacy.
Photo: “LAX-International-checkin” by TimBray at en.wikipedia.
Developments in law are sluggish compared to the rapid rate of technological advancement, and courts must constantly apply old legal principles to technologies which were not contemplated at the time the laws were enacted. Recently, technology has been at the forefront of privacy rights debates, in light of revelations that the government has access to online communications, personal data storage and extensive monitoring via technology. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution establishes a privacy right by prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure, but the extent to which that applies to technology is largely untested. Last week, a federal judge upheld this fundamental right as she ruled that our client’s rights had indeed been violated by an unreasonable search and seizure of a laptop computer conducted by the government.
U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson granted a motion which we filed on behalf of our client, South Korean businessman Jae Shik Kim, to suppress evidence seized from his laptop as he departed the country from Los Angeles International Airport in October 2012. The decision severely cripples the government’s case alleging that Kim conspired to sell aircraft technology illegally to Iran, in United States of America vs. Jae Shik Kim, Karham Eng. Corp. (Crim. Action No. 13-0100 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia).
The seizure of Mr. Kim’s laptop presents a unique challenge in an undeveloped area of law. The government claimed that because Mr. Kim’s laptop was seized at the border, it was free to search the computer without having any suspicion that he was presently engaged in criminal activity, the same way the government is free to search a piece of luggage or a cargo container. Yet anyone who owns a laptop, smartphone, tablet, or any other personal mobile device, knows that the breadth and depth of private information stored within these gadgets are intimately tied to our identities and should be entitled to a heightened level of privacy.
Judge Jackson, who understood this aspect of modern mobile devices, wisely rejected the government’s argument that a computer is simply a ‘container’ and that the government has an ‘unfettered right’ to search. In her memorandum opinion and order, she wrote, “…given the vast storage capacity of even the most basic laptops, and the capacity of computers to retain metadata and even deleted material, one cannot treat an electronic storage device like a handbag simply because you can put things in it and then carry it onto a plane.”
In her decision, Judge Jackson also repeatedly referred to “reasonableness” as the “touchstone for a warrantless search.” She keenly balanced the government’s imperative to protect our borders with individuals’ privacy rights. Judge Jackson found that the nature of the search — including that the government conducted the search as Kim departed the country (and not as he entered) to gather evidence in a pre-existing investigation, and that it made a copy of the entire contents of Kim’s laptop for an “unlimited duration and an examination of unlimited scope” — amounted to an invasion of privacy and an unreasonable search and seizure.
While the search of Mr. Kim was technically a border search, his laptop was not searched at the airport. Instead, it was transported 150 miles to San Diego and held until government agents were able to find and secure information they deemed valuable to their case. In fact, Mr. Kim was deemed so little of a threat to national security that he was permitted to board his flight. Judge Jackson noted that if the government’s asserted justification for the search were to stand, it “would mean that the border search doctrine has no borders.”
In this case, unfortunately, the government overstepped the boundaries established by Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, however the checks and balances imposed by the same foundational document proved to correct this error, and rightly so, as our laws continuously strive to adjust to the reality of rapidly evolving technology.