U.S. v. Jones

Understanding U.S. v. Ackerman

The Supreme Court has eschewed the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test in its most important recent Fourth Amendment cases. It’s not certain that the trend away from the so-called “Katz test,” largely driven by Justice Scalia, will continue, and nobody knows what will replace it. But doctrinal shift is in the air. Courts are searching for new and better ways to administer the Fourth Amendment.

A good example is the Tenth Circuit’s decision last week in U.S. v. Ackerman. That court found that opening an email file was a Fourth Amendment “search,” both as a matter of reasonable expectations doctrine and the “distinct line of authority” that is emerging from the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in U.S. v. Jones.

Here are the facts: AOL scans outgoing emails for child porn by comparing hashes of files sent through its network to hashes of known child porn. When it becomes aware of child porn, it is required by law to report them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. NCMEC is a governmental entity and agent. (That point takes up the bulk of the decision; Congress has made huge grants of governmental power to the organization.) NCMEC opened the file without a warrant.

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.

If You Think Smith v. Maryland Permits Mass Surveillance, You Haven’t Read Smith v. Maryland

… and you’re not following developments in Fourth Amendment law.

Jeffrey Toobin is the latest to claim that Smith v. Maryland settles the Fourth Amendment issues around the National Security Agency’s acquisition of data about every call made in the United States. He even links to the text of the decision in a recent blog post.

The majority opinion in Smith did say that people don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in phone records, but that rationale is weak, and the facts of Smith are inapposite to the present controversy. I think that’s easily gathered from reading the case with awareness of legal currents.

Here’s what happened in Smith:

On March 5, 1976, in Baltimore, Md., Patricia McDonough was robbed. She gave the police a description of the robber and of a 1975 Monte Carlo automobile she had observed near the scene of the crime. After the robbery, McDonough began receiving threatening and obscene phone calls from a man identifying himself as the robber. On one occasion, the caller asked that she step out on her front porch; she did so, and saw the 1975 Monte Carlo she had earlier described to police moving slowly past her home. On March 16, police spotted a man who met McDonough’s description driving a 1975 Monte Carlo in her neighborhood. By tracing the license plate number, police learned that the car was registered in the name of petitioner, Michael Lee Smith.

The next day, the telephone company, at police request, installed a pen register at its central offices to record the numbers dialed from the telephone at petitioner’s home. The police did not get a warrant or court order before having the pen register installed. The register revealed that on March 17 a call was placed from petitioner’s home to McDonough’s phone. On the basis of this and other evidence, the police obtained a warrant to search petitioner’s residence. The search revealed that a page in petitioner’s phone book was turned down to the name and number of Patricia McDonough; the phone book was seized. Petitioner was arrested, and a six-man lineup was held on March 19. McDonough identified petitioner as the man who had robbed her. (citations omitted)

The Fourth Amendment in the Supreme Court This Week

Prior to the development of trade and commerce, movable property was “not esteemed of so high a nature, nor paid so much regard to by the law,” Blackstone tells us in his commentaries on the laws of England. Such property in transit was routinely confiscated by authorities or tariffed at exorbitant rates.

When commercial relations expanded, the quantity and value of personal property increased, and the law “learned to conceive different ideas of it.” Legal protection for movable property increased.

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. 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.

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