Last July, we reported on United States v. Davis, an Eleventh Circuit decision in favor of privacy rights. In that case, a three-judge panel held that cell phone users have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell phone location data. If the government wants to collect the data, it must first obtain a probable-cause warrant, as required by the Fourth Amendment.
The groundbreaking decision seemed a clear victory for privacy rights, but the victory proved to be ephemeral. Last year, the en banc court agreed to revisit the question and, weeks ago, declared that subscribers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell tower location data. As a result, the government can collect such data from third-party service providers if it shows reasonable grounds to believe the information is relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.
In February 2010, defendant Quartavius Davis was convicted on multiple counts for robbery and weapons offenses. Davis appealed on grounds that the trial court admitted cell tower location data that the prosecution had obtained from a cell phone service provider in violation of Davis’ constitutional rights. An Eleventh Circuit panel agreed with Davis. Speaking for the court, Judge Sentelle explained that Davis had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the aggregation of data points reflecting his movement in public and private places. The government’s collection of the data was a warrantless “search” in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
To reach that decision, the panel leaned heavily on a 2012 Supreme Court case called United States v. Jones. In Jones, the Court announced that the government must have a probable-cause warrant before it can place a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car and monitor his travel on public streets. The Court so held based on a trespass (or physical intrusion) theory. Absent probable cause, the government could not commandeer the suspect’s bumper for purposes of tracking his movement, even if each isolated movement was observable in public. Several Justices went further, suggesting that the same result should obtain even without a trespass. They hinted that location data might be protected because individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the sequence of their movements over time. It was this persuasive but nonbinding privacy theory that guided the Eleventh Circuit’s panel decision.
On rehearing, the en banc court rejected the panel’s approach. The court noted that Davis could prevail only if he showed that a Fourth Amendment “search” occurred and that the search was unreasonable. He could show neither. To demonstrate a search, Davis had to establish a subjective expectation and objective expectation of privacy in his cell tower location data. But this case involved the collection of non-content cell tower data from a third-party provider who collected the information for legitimate business purposes: the records were not Davis’ to withhold. According to the court, Davis had no subjective expectation of privacy in the data because cell phone subscribers know (i) that when making a call, they must transmit their signal to a cell tower within range, (ii) that in doing so, they are disclosing to the provider their general location within a cell tower’s range, and (iii) that the provider keeps records of cell-tower usage. But even if Davis could claim a subjective expectation of privacy, he could not show an objective expectation. In the court’s view, Supreme Court precedent made clear that customers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in non-content data voluntarily transmitted to third-party providers. Because there was no “search,” there could be no violation of Davis’ constitutional rights.
The en banc court explained further that Jones did nothing to undermine the third-party doctrine. For one, Jones involved a government trespass on private property. But the records in Davis were not obtained by means of a government trespass or even a search, so Jones did not control. Additionally, Jones involved location data that was first collected by the government in furtherance of a criminal investigation. By contrast, Davis involved location data that was first compiled by a service provider in the ordinary course of business. Simply put, “[t]he judicial system does not engage in monitoring or a search when it compels the production of preexisting documents from a witness.”
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.
What were you doing Wednesday, November 5, 2014? If you are a staunch Republican, you might have been toasting the election results from the day before, dreamy-eyed and dancing. If you are a staunch Democrat, you might have been scratching your head profusely, thunderstruck and quiet. People across the country were talking politics and policy in a very public way that day. How would the results impact executive actions and legislative initiatives on immigration and healthcare? It seemed as though the democratic process was chugging along. Meanwhile, at the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building in D.C., a little-publicized hearing with potentially far-reaching consequences to your privacy rights was taking place.
The hearing was before the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Criminal Rules. The topic for discussion was proposed rule changes to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The Justice Department had requested the regulatory body modify slightly Rule 41(b), which outlines the terms for obtaining a search warrant. So far so boring, right? And what does any of this have to do with you, a law-abiding citizen? No wonder that the hearing captured little attention. But the slight modification that the DoJ requested is nothing to yawn at. It is a rule change that would give federal investigators sweeping powers to access computers and electronic devices not only of their targets but also of anyone else whose online path crosses investigator initiatives. As civil liberties advocates have pointed out: the rule change could pose a serious threat to Fourth Amendment protections and privacy rights.
Last year, the DoJ requested Rule 41(b) be amended to permit courts to issue search warrants allowing remote access searches of computers and other electronic storage media when the location is concealed. The provision would further allow investigators to seize electronically stored information regardless of whether that information is stored within or outside the court’s jurisdiction. The request, especially when you consider how it would be carried out in practice, is a big leap from current procedure. As it currently stands, Rule 41(b) only allows (with limited exceptions) a court to issue a warrant for people or property within the court’s district. In order to keep a check on investigators and investigations, the rules impose this location limitation, among other limitations. The point is to not give investigators free reign to look in on whomever, wherever and whenever they choose; the point is to limit the impact their investigations could have on people’s right to privacy.
Courts and Congress have made it clear that to comply with the Fourth Amendment, a search warrant that involves surreptitious and invasive tactics must meet a number of rigorous safeguards. These safeguards were outlined in the 1960s when wiretapping and bugging developed as the investigative tools of choice. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down New York state’s wiretapping law, holding that because electronic eavesdropping “by its very nature…involves an intrusion on privacy that is broad in scope,” it should be allowed only “under the most precise and discriminate circumstances.” Berger v. New York, 388 U.S. 41 (1967). The following year, Congress followed the Court’s cue and outlined those “precise and discriminate circumstances” in the Wiretap Act (a.k.a. Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968). For a search warrant to be valid, the issuing judge must work through a number of questions to ensure the warrant will be sufficiently circumscribed to meet the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement and that it is based upon probable cause. These constraints help to ensure, among other things, that investigators don’t go on fishing expeditions in pursuit of a crime as well as a criminal or that investigators don’t otherwise misuse their ability to peer into the lives of individuals (say to badger someone with a different political affiliation).
Remote access searches of electronic devices are no less invasive than the forms of electronic eavesdropping envisaged in the Wiretap Act. As the Supreme Court recently pronounced in Riley v. California, the search of a modern electronic device such as a smartphone or computer is more intrusive to privacy than even “the most exhaustive search of a house.” 134 S. Ct. 2473, 2491 (2014). The proposed change to Rule 41 could short circuit the procedural safeguards in place and demand we carry out a fiction that somehow remote access searches are not a form of electronic eavesdropping demanding heightened standards (this would be a particularly challenging fiction if you consider that remote access searching could allow investigators to activate a device’s camera or microphone).
While the DoJ’s requested changes would not necessarily override requirements of the Wiretap Act, the Rule 41 amendments could facilitate statutory and constitutional violations. This concern, among a host of others, was well articulated by the American Civil Liberties Union in its comments on the rule change. (If you have the time, it is a worthwhile exercise to review the comments submitted by the ACLU and the Center for Democracy & Technology, among others that outlined the anticipated negative consequences of the proposed rule change.) Chief among the concerns are the risk that investigators’ techniques to gain remote access—such as hyperlinks on public pages (“watering holes”), where users with common interests tend to gather—could subject thousands of non-suspect individuals’ electronic devices to the government’s malware.
It remains to be seen what the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee will decide, whether they choose to rubberstamp the DoJ’s proposed amendments or whether they will stand down and submit the question to public and legislative debate. Considering the DoJ’s request raises significant constitutional questions, we can only hope the Committee recognizes the value of airing the matter before a more public forum where the system of checks and balances remains in place.
U.S. Court of Appeals Decision: Cell Location Data is Protected Under Individual’s Expectation of Privacy
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently considered whether cell site location data is protected by the Fourth Amendment. On June 11, 2014, the court issued its decision in favor of privacy rights: the court held that cell site location information is within the cell phone subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy. If officers want the data, they must obtain the subscriber’s consent or a judicial warrant supported by probable cause.
The court’s decision in United States v. Davis pertained to Quartavius Davis, a federal defendant who was convicted in Florida on multiple counts of robbery, conspiracy, and possession of a firearm. For his crimes, Davis was sentenced to roughly 162 years in prison.
On appeal, Davis argued that his convictions and sentence should be reversed. Among other things, Davis argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress cell site location data, which the prosecution used to place Davis near the various crime scenes. Investigators were able to obtain the data without a probable-cause warrant. They did so under a provision of the Stored Communications Act, which states that a court may order production of non-content cell phone records based on reasonable grounds to believe the records are material to an ongoing criminal investigation. Davis objected that the evidence in his case should be suppressed because it was the product of a warrantless search conducted in violation of his constitutional rights.
The Eleventh Circuit agreed with Davis, holding that cell site location information is within the subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Speaking for the three-judge panel, Judge Sentelle discussed two distinct views of the interests subject to Fourth Amendment protection: property interests and privacy interests. The court determined that the privacy theory applied to Davis’ case. Because Davis had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his cell site location information, the government’s warrantless collection of that data violated Davis’ Fourth Amendment rights.
The Davis opinion is arguably the most protective of individual rights as compared to similar appellate decisions. In September 2010, the Third Circuit held that officers can obtain cell site data under the Stored Communications Act as long as they meet the reasonable-grounds standard. But the court also added that, in exceptional cases, a judge may impose a warrant requirement for data that can be used to track an individual’s movements in a private location, such as the home.
In July 2013, the Fifth Circuit issued a less-protective decision. In that case, the court held that individuals do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in non-content cell site data. Therefore, the court must order the production of such information when the government meets its burden of proof under the Stored Communications Act.
The Supreme Court has yet to decide the issue. But past Fourth Amendment cases suggest that no fewer than five sitting Justices favor the privacy theory that Judge Sentelle relied on. They are likely to agree that cell phone subscribers have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell location data.
In a recent opinion, the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit addressed whether it was constitutionally reasonable for police to use a doctor – in this case, a doctor “who is known to conduct unconsented intrusive procedures when suspects are presented by the police” – to forcibly recover drugs from a man’s rectum. Judge Julia Smith Gibbons’ dissent notwithstanding, the 6th Circuit found that it was not reasonable, opining that the doctor’s behavior “shocks the conscience at least as much as the stomach pumping that the Supreme Court long ago held to violate due process.”
The case, United States v. Felix Booker, came to the appeals court from the Eastern District of Tennessee. It began just before noon on August 12, 2010, when K-9 officer Daniel Steakley pulled Booker over for expired plates. The stop quickly escalated into a drug search. Steakley had arrested Booker earlier the previous year. Although Steakley’s drug-sniffing dog and a physical patdown yielded less than a gram of marijuana, Steakley called for backup and immediately arrested Booker for felony possession of marijuana. Tennessee law designates anything less than 14.175 grams a misdemeanor, worthy of only a citation.
Apparently the arrest was based on the officer’s suspicion that Booker was hiding contraband on his person. According to the officers, Booker fidgeted with the back of his pants during the traffic stop and at the police station following his arrest. They subjected Booker to an even more intrusive patdown in the interrogation room and to a strip search at the detention facility. No contraband was retrieved from either, but the officers weren’t done with Booker. They transported him – naked, shackled, and covered only in a blanket – to a local emergency room. There they presented him Dr. Michael LaPaglia, the attending physician.
LaPaglia told Booker that he needed to examine his rectum and extract any items found there. Booker refused. LaPaglia informed Booker that he had little choice in the matter, injected Booker with muscle relaxants and probed his rectum, manually. When that search failed to produce any contraband, LaPaglia ordered general anesthesia and had Booker intubated for nearly an hour. LaPaglia then paralyzed Booker and successfully extracted what previous probes had failed to retrieve, five ounces of crack cocaine.
This was the third time in three years that officers from the sheriff’s department had sought LaPaglia’s assistance in extracting evidence from a suspect. This time, however, Booker appealed his conviction and the 6th Circuit reversed — on the grounds that LaPaglia in conjunction with the Oak Ridge Sheriff’s department had violated Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure.
After addressing why the doctor’s conduct was attributable to the police, the Court examined the reasonableness of the search by weighing the following three factors: (1) the extent to which the procedure may threaten the safety or health of the individual, (2) the extent of intrusion upon the individual’s dignitary interests in personal privacy and bodily integrity, and (3) the community’s interest in fairly and accurately determining guilt or innocence. In its analysis, the court highlighted the doctor’s failure to employ the less intrusive means used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection: an x-ray to confirm the presence of contraband, monitored bowel, and only engaging in an involuntary body cavity search after obtaining a court order.
The line between zealous police work and the violation of civil liberties can be fine. In Booker’s case, however, that line was egregiously and recklessly crossed with the help of a doctor, all too willing to set aside his oath: “First, do no harm.”
Privacy and national security interests are notoriously tricky to balance. Lean too far one way, and you lose an important tool in preventing and detecting crime; lean too far the other way, and you are depriving Americans of their liberty through persistent government intrusion and observation. This balancing act has been an especially hot topic given recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance and data-gathering networks. While attention has been focused on the NSA and the mass surveillance disclosures that took place earlier this summer, a particularly startling revelation about the FBI’s actions has flown largely under the radar.
A recent New York Times article revealed that the FBI has been gathering information from suspects by remotely hacking into their electronic devices and covertly tapping into the information that can be found on and through the devices. The FBI accomplishes this in much the same way that criminal, civilian hackers do: by delivering spyware to the devices through web or email links. When the user clicks on the link, either on a computer or a smartphone, the government can use the spyware either to collect existing files or to activate the device’s recording devices for continuing surveillance. According to the article, one former U.S. official confirmed that the FBI can remotely activate the microphones in phones running the Android operating system to record conversations.
This sort of government intrusion goes well beyond the NSA’s acknowledged collection of telephone and email metadata. This spyware is programmed to collect full conversations, real-time photos and videos, and stored files of all types, from devices that people have near them 24 hours a day. This type of intrusive government intrusion into a device in which an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy is the type that the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment is meant to address. And, in theory, it does. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies are required to obtain a warrant each time that they implement this technology to gather content such as computer files, and must meet a stricter standard for wiretaps when conducting surveillance using the webcam or microphone.
As technology advances, it becomes easier for the government to watch our every move. Whereas once the government could listen to conversations only on wiretapped telephones or bugged areas, it is now able to keep an open microphone on a device that people keep on them no matter where they are. We hope that law enforcement and the courts will seek and allow the use of this incredibly invasive and effective technique only rarely where no other surveillance is sufficient and not as a matter of course in standard investigations.
A split among the U.S. courts of appeals is taking shape over the threshold requirements for the government’s ability to obtain historical cell phone location data, in the wake of a July 30, 2013, ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
That court held that a U.S. district court must order a cell phone service provider to produce a subscriber’s cell site data when the government presents specific and articulable facts showing reasonable grounds to believe that the records are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.
The case began in 2010, when federal authorities in the Southern District of Texas filed applications for cell phone data in connection with three criminal investigations. The applications, submitted under § 2703(d) of the Stored Communications Act, requested 60 days of subscriber information and cell site data for specific cell phone numbers.
Section 2703 states that the government may require third-party service providers to turn over their subscribers’ cell phone data as long as the requisite burden is met. Generally speaking, authorities may obtain substantive communications, i.e., “content” records, without notice to the subscriber, but only based on probable cause as required by the Fourth Amendment. “Non-content” records, on the other hand, may be obtained on a lesser showing.
Thus, service providers may be compelled to turn over details of a subscriber’s call history, including numbers called, session times, and the duration of calls. To obtain non-content data, the government must offer “specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the . . . information sought [ is] relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” The statute provides that an order may be issued by any court of competent jurisdiction and shall be issued only if the government makes the required showing.
The magistrate reviewing the applications granted the government’s requests for subscriber information but denied the requests for cell site data. Although the government had met its burden under the statute, the magistrate held that compelled production of location data would constitute a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district judge affirmed.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit considered two issues. First, the court considered whether the Act requires the issuance of an order for non-content records when the government meets the “specific and articulable facts” standard or, alternatively, whether district courts may impose a higher burden. Second, the court considered whether the compelled production of cell site data constitutes a “search” under the Fourth Amendment.
On the first issue, the court held that an order must issue when the government meets the “specific and articulable facts” standard: the test is both a necessary and sufficient condition for an order under § 2703. The court resolved the tension between the statute’s permissive and mandatory terms by explaining that any court of competent jurisdiction may order the production of historical location data; but, if the government meets its burden under the statute, the court must issue an order compelling production of non-content data. Under such circumstances, district courts may not deny the government’s request or impose a warrant requirement.
The Fifth Circuit answered the second question by holding that compelled production of cell site data is not a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. The court’s decision rested on its conclusion that location data are simply the service provider’s business records, not data from a tracking device. As the court explained, the service provider stores and collects cell site data voluntarily for its own business purposes, not on behalf of the government. Additionally, the records concern commercial transactions to which the service provider is a party. Unlike content data, the subscriber’s location information is intended solely for the provider, who needs it to complete the subscriber’s calls.
The court explained further that subscribers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in cell site data. Subscribers know full well that phone service depends on transmission of the caller’s location data. And even if that were not common knowledge, subscribers would still have no reasonable expectation of privacy in location data because the provider’s terms of service and privacy policies explain how the data are used, collected and stored. Armed with that knowledge, subscribers make informed choices about whether and how they use their cell phones.
The Fifth Circuit opinion is fascinating, especially because of the tension it creates with a Third Circuit case decided just weeks before the government filed its applications in Texas. Like the Fifth Circuit, the Third Circuit considered whether a court may deny an order for historical non-content records when the government makes the requisite showing under § 2703(d).
First, that court held that orders based on “specific and articulable facts” are not per se unconstitutional. But unlike the Fifth Circuit, the Third Circuit held that § 2703(d) establishes the conditions necessary, but not the conditions sufficient, for an order. In other words, courts can still require probable cause in limited circumstances. The court’s holding followed logically from its conclusion that, at least in some cases, cell phones are like tracking devices. And when historical cell site data is used to track a suspect’s physical movement in places where the suspect has a reasonable expectation of privacy – the home, for example – the Fourth Amendment may require a showing of probable cause. The Third Circuit held that, in such cases, district courts may require a warrant.
Disputes over government access to historical cell site data are far from over. If these cases are any indication, these rulings will hinge on whether courts deem cell phone location data to be more like third-party business records or more like data from a tracking device. Since a clear split among the circuit courts seems to be developing, it appears fairly likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue soon.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona underlined the importance of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments and drew a line that law enforcement must not cross – all in the interest of protecting individuals’ constitutional rights. Unfortunately, however, the high court was not as clear regarding the level of protection required under the Fourth Amendment in its 2012 decision in United States v. Jones.
In Jones, the Court held that a Fourth Amendment “search” occurs, and a warrant is required, when a GPS tracking device is attached by law enforcement to a person’s vehicle and then used to track its movements. Remaining unclear from the opinion, however, was whether and when such searches could be ever be exempt from the warrant requirement. Further unclear was whether the ruling would apply to other technologies, such as smartphones and OnStar systems.
Because of these ambiguities, and magnified by developments in location technologies, Fourth Amendment and privacy rights are giving way to aggressive law enforcement – and courts are divided on the propriety of these tactics. The Obama Administration recently argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit that the Supreme Court has given the government broad exemptions to search warrant requirements (such as the “reasonable suspicion” and the “probable cause” exceptions) and that device tracking can fall under these exemptions.
Far more troubling, however, is a recent opinion by a federal magistrate in New York in which U.S. Magistrate Judge Gary Brown effectively eviscerated Fourth Amendment protections for device tracking. Brown ruled that a search warrant is not necessary for authorities to obtain real-time location information for a suspect’s cell phone. Brown held that “phone users who fail to turn off their cell phones do not exhibit an expectation of privacy.” The magistrate’s opinion would mean that we are all effectively giving our consent to search by virtue of using a ubiquitous (and near-essential) technology.
Brown’s opinion contrasts starkly with Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s concurring opinion in Jones, in which she noted:
People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers, the URLs that they visit and the e-mail addresses with which they correspond to their Internet service providers, and the books, groceries and medications they purchase to online retailers . . . I would not assume that all information voluntarily disclosed to some member of the public for a limited purpose is, for that reason alone, disentitled to Fourth Amendment protection.
The contrasting statements among the courts have reinforced the need for Congress to step in and circumscribe law enforcement tracking tactics. Currently before the House are both H.R. 983, the Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act and H.R. 1312, the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act. Both bills are aimed at providing a legal framework for when and how location tracking devices can be used, and when and how data location records may be obtained. Both bills were introduced during the last Congress and reintroduced during this term. With bipartisan support, hopefully they will get traction. In the meantime, you may want to keep your cell phone powered off.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit is set to become the first federal appellate court to answer the question left open by the Supreme Court in United States v. Jones. Last year, the Court held in Jones that a Fourth Amendment “search” occurs, and a warrant is required, when a GPS tracking device is attached by law enforcement to a person’s vehicle and then used to track its movements. The Court did not consider when, if ever, that type of search would be exempt from the Constitution’s warrant requirement.
Last month, the 3rd Circuit heard oral arguments on that question. It is expected to issue its decision later this year.The appeal relates to the prosecution of Harry, Michael, and Mark Katzin — three brothers charged with the burglary of a Rite Aid pharmacy in Pennsylvania. In 2009, authorities began investigating a rash of pharmacy burglaries in the Northeast. Most of the crimes targeted Rite Aid stores and appeared related because each occurred after someone had cut the wires to the pharmacy’s alarm system. Eventually, authorities identified Harry Katzin as a person of interest. He had been implicated in suspicious activities involving other Rite Aid pharmacies and was known to keep electrician’s tools, gloves and ski masks in his van.
Initially, agents physically tracked Katzin’s movements. Then they decided more comprehensive surveillance was needed, so they attached a GPS tracking device to Katzin’s bumper and waited. Two or three days later, the tracking device showed that the van had stopped at a Rite Aid store in Hamburg, Pa. After the van left, one agent drove to the store to confirm it had been burglarized while state troopers followed the van onto the highway. When the burglary was confirmed, troopers stopped the van and arrested the Katzins. Only then did authorities obtain a search warrant, which led to their discovery of merchandise from the Rite Aid store, parts of the pharmacy’s alarm system, and Schedule II drugs.
In April 2011, the brothers were charged with pharmacy burglary and possession of Schedule II drugs with intent to distribute. They filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence found in the van. At that time, neither the 3rd Circuit nor the Supreme Court had decided whether the attachment and use of an external GPS tracking device constitutes a Fourth Amendment search. In early 2012, the Jones Court made clear that it does. Applying Jones, the trial judge granted the Katzins’ motion, and the government appealed.
On appeal, the government argues that the search in question, i.e., the attachment and use of the GPS device, falls within one of two exceptions to the warrant requirement. Under the “reasonable suspicion” exception, a warrantless search may be conducted under limited circumstances if the minimal intrusion on the individual’s privacy is outweighed by a legitimate government interest. In this case, the government contends, the “trespass” to Katzin’s van was minimal because it involved the placement of a magnetic GPS device on the bumper. Subsequent monitoring of the device was minimally intrusive because it revealed only the location of the van — information that could be obtained by physical surveillance. In the government’s view, these minimal intrusions were outweighed by the government’s interests in investigating crime.
The government also argues that the search falls within the “probable cause” exception. Under that exception, officers may conduct a warrantless search of an automobile if there is probable cause to believe it contains contraband or if exigent circumstances make a warrant application impractical. The government claims that no warrant was required in this case because officers had probable cause to believe that Katzin would use his van to burglarize another Rite Aid pharmacy.
The Katzin brothers counter that neither exception applies. First, the “reasonable suspicion” exception does not apply because the officers installed the device without a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot at the time of installation. Instead, the officers proceeded on a hunch that turned out to be right. The Constitution requires more than that.
The “probable cause” exception does not apply because, when the officers installed the device, they had no reason to believe there was contraband in the van or that the van was readily mobile, which might have made a warrant application impractical. As the Katzins point out, the officers attached the device in the dead of night on a deserted street. If the officers had evidence to support probable cause under those circumstances, they should have applied for a warrant.
Our sense is that the trial court will be upheld. The Fourth Amendment’s baseline requirement is that searches be conducted pursuant to a valid warrant supported by probable cause. These facts do not appear to support an exception. As the trial judge noted, the government argues for application of the “reasonable suspicion” exception based on its general interest in efficient law enforcement. The government did not prove that the special needs of this case required the warrantless intrusion visited on the defendants.
Likewise, the government argues for application of the “probable cause” argument based on the officers’ general suspicion that Katzin would use his van to commit a crime in the coming days, weeks, or months. The government did not prove that the officers had probable cause to believe that a crime was in progress when the device was attached. If courts do not hold the line on these exceptions, the Fourth Amendment will be eviscerated.
The vast increase in the use of wireless data networks has led to new legal issues regarding network users’ right to privacy. A recent opinion issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon indicates that, under some circumstances, individuals on an unsecured wireless network have a reasonable expectation of privacy entitling them to Fourth Amendment protection. As a result, police officers must obtain a warrant prior to accessing files on that network.
In United States v. Ahrndt, defendant John Henry Ahrndt moved to suppress evidence that a police officer obtained by accessing Ahrndt’s wireless home network and opening files without a search warrant.
In February 2007, one of Ahrndt’s neighbors connected to Ahrndt’s unsecured wireless internet network. When she opened her iTunes program, she was able to see “shared” files from Ahrndt’s iTunes and LimeWire accounts, and saw a number of titles indicative of child pornography.
The neighbor did not open any of the files, but called the police to report what she saw. A deputy came to her house and she showed him the file names as she had seen them. The deputy asked her to open one of the files. When she did, it opened an image of child pornography.
The deputy questioned the neighbor about whom the unsecured wireless network might belong to. She indicated that the network had been available since she moved into the building, and at the time Ahrndt’s home was the only other one that was occupied. The police ran the license plate of a car parked outside of the home and identified it as belonging to Ahrndt, a convicted sex offender.
Using a general description of what the neighbor and deputy recalled seeing in the list of file names, the police applied for and received a search warrant to access the wireless network again in order to get an IP address. The police then served a summons on the Internet provider. The provider disclosed that Ahrndt was the subscriber in question.
Using that information, the police obtained a search warrant for Ahrndt’s home. They ran a forensic search of his computer and identified images of child pornography in various folders. The forensic report did not mention either iTunes or LimeWire.
In considering the motion to suppress the evidence obtained through the initial warrantless search, the court concluded that it would have been appropriate for the deputy to view the titles of the files without a warrant, since a private party (the neighbor) had already viewed those files and told the police about them. However, the court concluded that it was a violation of Ahrndt’s Fourth Amendment rights for the police to instruct the neighbor to open the file, which she had not previously done. The opened image was no longer within the purview of private search, but a government search.
The court also found that Ahrndt’s privacy expectations were not eliminated by accessing an unsecured wireless network. There was no evidence that Ahrndt had intentionally enabled sharing for those files; rather, the default setting of the LimeWire program enabled sharing. It was Ahrndt’s reasonable belief that those files were contained only on his hard drive, and not shared on a public network. The court said that “[i]n short, the government does not dispute a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the files on his home personal computer.”
The court concluded that, lacking specific file names and a description of images, a magistrate would not have found probable cause to issue a search warrant. The only evidence that the police viewed lawfully was the file names, which the neighbor and deputy could not remember with specificity. Since the “partial recollections and characterizations” were too general to support a warrant, all related evidence from the unlawful search must be suppressed.
The court came to the right conclusion on this one. Our reliance on the Internet has become such that what is on our computers is as personal and private as the inside of our homes. The government is no more entitled to search our computer without probable cause than to search our homes. This case does not represent a free pass to intentionally share information on wireless networks and then assert Fourth Amendment rights when the government comes knocking. Rather, it is only that information to which an user has a reasonable expectation of privacy—such as files that he is not aware are accessible to others—that is protected against the government’s unlawful search and seizure.
It’s easy to see how this has implications for potential white-collar cases: the government might try to use financial information unintentionally made available to a neighbor through an unsecured network as a basis to initiate a financial fraud investigation. We hope that the courts will rely on this case and suppress any evidence obtained as a result of this type of unlawful search.