Tag: justice sonia sotomayor

All Your Records Are Belong to U.S.

Twice in the last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed that the government can access records about you held by third parties without getting a warrant. It’s a nice illustration of the broad and deep reach of the “third party doctrine.”

U.S. v. Golden Valley Electric Association is the more recent of the two. In that case, the government delivered an administrative subpoena to a member-owned electricity cooperative asking for quite a bit of information about three residences it served:

customer information including full name, address, telephone number, and any account information for customer; method of payment (credit card, debit card, cash, check) with card number and account information; to include power consumption records and date(s) service was initiated and terminated for the period 10-01-2009 through 12-14-2010…

Golden Valley resisted the subpoena on a number of bases, including by arguing that criminal investigations require a warrant.

The court rejected the Fourth Amendment argument because the customer of a business like Golden Valley “lacks ‘a reasonable expectation of privacy in an item,’ like a business record, ‘in which he has no possessory or ownership interest.’” That’s the third-party doctrine: The government can access your electricity usage records and billing information without implicating the Fourth Amendment.

In mid-July, a different panel of the Ninth Circuit concluded the same thing about hotel records.

Los Angeles Municipal Code section 41.49 requires hotel operators to maintain information about their guests,

including name and address; total number of guests; make, type and license number of the guest’s vehicle if parked on hotel premises; date and time of arrival; scheduled date of departure; room number; rate charged and collected; method of payment; and the name of the hotel employee who checked the guest in.

These records must be held for 90 days and made available for inspection by any officers of the Los Angeles Police Department.

The owners of motels in Los Angeles challenged the law as a facial violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court rejected that argument, finding that the information the ordinance makes available to law enforcement “does not, on its face, appear confidential or ‘private’ from the perspective of the hotel operator.” For their part, hotel guests do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy in guest registry information once they have provided it to the hotel operator.”

This is another unremarkable application of the third party doctrine, which says that people do not have Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure with respect to information they have shared with others.

Last January, in her concurrence to the Supreme Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Jones, Justice Sotomayor questioned the “third party doctrine” (as Justice Alito had done during oral argument).

[I]t may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties. This approach is ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks. 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.

It is not a slam dunk that utility and hotel records should be Fourth-Amendment protected, requiring probable cause and a warrant before law enforcement can access them. But if electric providers and hoteliers maintain information in confidence due to contractual or regulatory obligations, that should extend the protection of the Fourth Amendment to what I think of as the digital effects created by modern living. This is not so much because of the sensitivities around electricity use or lodging, but because this is the rule we need to secure the much more sensitive data we routinely share and store with third parties online.

U.S. v. Jones: A Big Privacy Win

The Supreme Court has delivered a big win for privacy in U.S. v. Jones. That’s the case in which government agents placed a GPS device on a car and used it to track a person round-the-clock for four weeks. The question before the Court was whether the government may do this in the absence of a valid warrant. All nine justices say No.

That’s big, important news. The Supreme Court will not allow developments in technology to outstrip constitutional protections the way it did in Olmstead.

Olmstead v. United States was a 1928 decision in which the Court held that there was no Fourth Amendment search or seizure involved in wiretapping because law enforcement made “no entry of the houses or offices of the defendants.” It took 39 years for the Court to revisit that restrictive, property-based ruling and find that Fourth Amendment interests exist outside of buildings. “[T]he Fourth Amendment protects people, not places” went the famous line from Katz v. United States (1967), which has been the lodestar ever since.

For its good outcome, though, Katz has not served the Fourth Amendment and privacy very well. The Cato Institute’s brief argued to the Court that the doctrine arising from Katz “is weak as a rule for deciding cases.” As developed since 1967, “the ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ test reverses the inquiry required by the Fourth Amendment and biases Fourth Amendment doctrine against privacy.”

Without rejecting Katz and reasonable expectations, the Jones majority returned to property rights as a basis for Fourth Amendment protection. “The Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information” when it attached a GPS device to a private vehicle and used it to gather information. This was a search that the government could not conduct without a valid warrant.

The property rationale for deciding the case had the support of five justices, led by Justice Scalia. The other four justices would have used “reasonable expectations” to decide the same way, so they concurred in the judgement but not the decision. They found many flaws in the use of property and “18th-century tort law” to decide the case.

Justice Sotomayor was explicit in supporting both rationales for protecting privacy. With Justice Scalia, she argued, “When the Government physically invades personal property to gather information, a search occurs.” This language—more clear, and using the legal term of art “personal property,” which Justica Scalia did not—would seem to encompass objects like cell phones, the crucial tool we use today to collect, maintain, and transport our digital effects. Justice Sotomayor emphasized in her separate concurrence that the majority did not reject Katz and “reasonable expectations” in using property as the grounds for this decision.

Justice Sotomayor also deserves special notice for mentioning the pernicious third-party doctrine. “[I]t may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties.” The third-party doctrine cuts against our Fourth Amendment interests in information we share with ISPs, email service providers, financial services providers, and so on. Reconsidering it is very necessary.

Justice Alito’s concurrence is no ringing endorsement of the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test. But he and the justices joining him see many problems with applying Justice Scalia’s property rationale as they interpreted it.

Along with the Scalia-authored Kyllo decision of 2001, Jones is a break from precedent. It may seem like a return to the past, but it is also a return to a foundation on which privacy can be more secure.

More commentary here in the coming days and weeks will explore the case’s meaning more fully. Hopefully, more Supreme Court cases in coming years and decades will clarify and improve Fourth Amendment doctrine.