Tag: Fourth Amendment

Patel: Right Result, Wan Rationale

Making short work of the idea that facial challenges aren’t available under the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled today in Los Angeles v. Patel that a city may not require its hotels to turn over their business records without some opportunity for review of the government’s demands. It’s the right result, but the Court was too quiet about its treatment of Fourth Amendment doctrine, and it did not take the opportunity to fully address situations like the case presented, in which the government dragoons private businesses into surveillance on its behalf.

Justice Sotomayor, writing for a 5-4 majority, held: “the provision of the Los Angeles Municipal Code that requires hotel operators to make their registries available to the police on demand is facially unconstitutional because it penalizes them for declining to turn over their records without affording them any opportunity for pre-compliance review.” Justice Scalia led one bloc of dissenters believing it was reasonable to institute this kind of regulation on business owners suspected of no substantive crime because their facilities are sometimes used for crime. Justice Alito dissented as well, arguing that there should be no facial challenge to the statute because constitutional applications of it exist.

Had the stars lined up, the Court might have used the Patel case to address simmering issues around current Fourth Amendment doctrine, as the Cato Institute’s brief for the Court suggested. The Court indeed eschewed the backward “reasonable expectation of privacy” test, which finds that Fourth Amendment interest exists when people reasonably feel that it does. It instead examined whether the government’s scheme was reasonable, which is where the language of the Fourth Amendment focuses courts’ attention. But the Court did not broadcast the inapplicability of “reasonable expectation” doctrine, so most lawyers and lower courts will probably not realize that another in a growing line of cases is applying the Fourth Amendment in a new and better way, by hewing more closely to the text.

Part of the reason the Court didn’t take all the constitutional bait was the unusually narrow challenge the hoteliers brought. They attacked the collection of information by the government, granting for the sake of argument in this case that the government has the power to require them to collect information about their customers for the government’s later use. Had the Court considered the totality of what we called “the warrantless search scheme,” it would have had to assess whether it is reasonable in our constitutional system for private businesses to be dragooned into wholesale, comprehensive surveillance on behalf of the government. That scope might have brought the Court’s conservatives off the sidelines and into defending the degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted. (Surely, the government couldn’t have conscripted businesses into mass surveillance of the public at the time of the framing.)

Folks who are paying attention will recognize that the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test continues to recede in importance. We will continue to wait, though, for the case that clearly and articulately applies the right against unreasonable seizures and searches to information as such. While Patel is a technical win, some later case or cases will have to truly address how the Fourth Amendment is to be administered in the modern era.

Good Precedents against NSA Spying

With debate about NSA spying continuing in the Senate, it’s worth looking at some of the historical and modern precedents for protecting our communications and communications data. A few highlights:

  • The earliest precedent for protection of communications in the United States is the treatment of mail. The founders used postal mail to communicate their revolutionary ideas and even to plan their insurrection against the tyranny of King George, so they prioritized protecting the privacy of the mail. In the Act of Feb. 20, 1792, passed a few short years after ratification of the Constitution, the U.S. Congress enshrined protections for mail in the law, creating heavy fines for opening or delaying mail.
  • The Supreme Court confirmed the existence of constitutional protection for postal communications in Ex Parte Jackson. In that 1877 case, the Court described the Fourth Amendment’s guarantees in very interesting and clear language: “Letters and sealed packages … are as fully guarded from examination and inspection, except as to their outward form and weight, as if they were retained by the parties forwarding them in their own domiciles.” Though we place mail in the hands of government agents, the Fourth Amendment protects it like it’s inside our homes.
  • The year Ex Parte Jackson case was decided, both Western Union and the Bell Company began providing voice telephone service. The Supreme Court addressed constitutional protection for phone calls some decades later in 1928. The Olmstead case was wrongly decided, we now know. It found that telephone communications weren’t protected by the Constitution. So the dissents are where to look for precedential language. Justice Brandeis’s famous dissent spoke of the “right to be let alone,” but Justice Butler provided thinking and language that should have more lasting value: “The contracts between telephone companies and users contemplate the private use of the facilities employed in the service,” he wrote. “The communications belong to the parties between whom they pass.” The communications belong to the parties. That’s a fasacinating and important way to think about our communications, as property that we own.

In Holding NSA Spying Illegal, the Second Circuit Treats Data as Property

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has ruled that section 215 of the USA-PATRIOT Act never authorized the National Security Agency’s collection of all Americans’ phone calling records. It’s pleasing to see the opinion parallel arguments that Randy Barnett and I put forward over the last couple of years.

Two points from different parts of the opinion can help structure our thinking about constitutional protection for communications data and other digital information. Data is property, which can be unconstitutionally seized.

As cases like this often do, the decision spends much time on niceties like standing to sue. In that discussion—finding that the ACLU indeed has legal standing to challenge government collection of its calling data—the court parried the government’s argument that the ACLU suffers no offense until its data is searched.

“The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures,” the court emphasized. Data is a thing that can be owned, and when the government takes someone’s data, it is seized.

In this situation, the data is owned jointly by telecommunications companies and their customers. The companies hold it subject to obligations they owe their customers limiting what they can do with it. Think of covenants that run with land. These covenants run with data for the benefit of the customer.

“Just Follow the Damn Constitution”

At a hearing this week on mobile device security, law enforcement representatives argued that technology companies should weaken encryption, such as by installing back doors, so that the government can have easier access to communications. They even chastised companies like Apple and Google for moving to provide consumers better privacy protections.

As an Ars Technica report put it, “lawmakers were not having it.” But a particular lawmaker’s response stands out. It’s the statement of Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), one of the few members of Congress with a computer science degree. He also “gets” the structure of power. Lieu articulated why the Fourth Amendment specifically disables government agents’ access to information, and how National Security Agency spying has undercut the interests of law enforcement with its overreaching domestic spying.

Give a listen to Lieu as he chastises the position taken by a district attorney from Suffolk County, MA:

Does the Government Require Your Hotel to Spy on You?

If you’re a privacy conscious traveler, you may have wondered from time to time why hotels ask for ID when you check in, or why they ask you to give them the make and model of your car and other information that isn’t essential to the transaction. What’s the ID-checking for? There’s never been a problem with fraudsters checking into hotels under others’ reservations, paying for the privilege to do so…

Well, in many jurisdictions around the country, that information-gathering is mandated by law. Local ordinances require hotels, motels, and other lodgers (such as AirBnB hosts), to collect this information and keep it on hand. These laws also require that the information be made available to the police on request, for any reason or no reason, without a warrant.

That’s the case in Los Angeles, which not only requires this data retention about hotel guests for law enforcement to access at will or whim. It also requires hoteliers to check a government-issued ID from guests that pay cash.

Open access to hotel records may have been innocuous enough in the early years of travel and lodging. Reading through hotel registers was a social sport among the wealthy, who could afford long-distance travel and lodging. Today, tourism is available to the masses, and hotel records enjoy tighter privacy protections. Most people would quit a hotel that left their information open to the public, and many would be surprised that hoteliers’ records are open to law enforcement collection and review without any legal process.

Riley and Wurie: Beyond “Get a Warrant”

As Ilya noted earlier, the Supreme Court struck a blow for privacy and the Fourth Amendment today. It ruled that a warrant is generally required when law enforcement officers want to search a cell phone they have seized. Justice Roberts’ opinion for a unanimous court provides some crisp language:

Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life.” (citation omitted) The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.

In this case, we pretty well knew we were going to get a win. So let’s set aside the trumpets and talk about the margin of victory. Did we get improvements in Fourth Amendment doctrine that will bolster privacy protection in cases to come? Only a little.

OK, let’s trumpet the case a bit. This is a unanimous case with a bright-line rule. It’s about the best outcome you could hope for in Riley and Wurie themselves (argued separately, decided together), and it’s a great vindication of the constitutional status of cell phones and our data on them.

Chief Justice Roberts seems to have brought the Court together on this one (save a niggling Alito concurrence) to produce a strong opinion that doesn’t show gaps among the justices. (They may all have felt a need to huddle, avoiding an open fight or the tipping of hands on the NSA spying controversy, for example.)

And on the major privacy controversy of the day, the Court did not tip its hand. It distinguished Smith v. Maryland, the case the government uses to justify gathering records about every U.S. phone. Smith held that using a pen register to gather phone calling information was not a search. “There is no dispute here that the officers engaged in a search of Wurie’s cell phone,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, punting for the Court in this case based on the consensus among parties.

The errant decision in Smith relied on the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test arising from the 1967 case, Katz v. United States. The very good news from this decision is that the Court once again declined to use the Katz test in resolving a Fourth Amendment issue, as our briefs invited the Court to do (or not to do, as it were). Instead, the Court implicitly found that there were searches in both cases and that those searches were of persons, houses, papers, or effects. Then it examined the reasonableness of searching cell phones.

That’s important because it means that the Court is interpreting the Fourth Amendment more like a law and not as the stack of doctrines that I’ve previously called a “jumble of puzzles.”

June’s Cato Unbound: The Snowden Files, One Year Later

This month at Cato Unbound, we’re discussing Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations.

We mostly know the story, but it bears repeating: One year ago this week, Glenn Greenwald wrote a news story that would change the world forever. In it, we learned that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting enormous amounts of telephone metadata on what were presumably ordinary American citizens. The agency had done so without a warrant and without suspicion of any indiviudal person. The revelation changed forever how Americans think about national security, privacy, and civil liberties in the digital age.

More revelations soon followed. Among many others, these included NSA surveillance of web activitymobile phone location data, and the content of email and text messages. The NSA also conducted many highly embarrassing acts of surveillance against allied or benign world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the conclave that recently elected Pope FrancisIt had subverted commonly used encryption systems. It had co-opted numerous tech companies in its plans. Its leaders had repeatedly lied to, or at the very least misled, the U.S. Congress

How far should surveillance go? What has been the value of the information gained? What have we given up in the process? What are the risks, should malign actors ever get their hands on the controls of the system?

We are able to ask these questions today because of one individual: Edward Snowden, a systems administrator for the NSA who chose to make public the information to which he had access. We have no choice now but to debate it. That’s simply what democracies do whenever such momentous information becomes public.

Joining us at Cato Unbound this month are four individuals with extensive knowledge in the fields of national security and civil liberties: Cato Senior Fellow Julian Sanchez, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Benjamin Wittes, Georgetown University Professor Carrie F. Cordero, and independent journalist Marcy Wheeler. Each brings a somewhat different perspective on the matters at hand, and we welcome them all to what is sure to be a vigorous debate.