Tuesday, April 29, 2014

SCOTUSWatch: The iPhone Meets the Fourth Amendment

The Agema Thermovision 210 might disclose, for example, at what hour each night the lady of the house takes her daily sauna and bath—a detail that many would consider ‘intimate.’”

-- Justice Antonin Scalia, Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001)

This morning, the Supreme Court will hear argument in United States v. Wurie and Riley v. California, two cases concerning the right of police officers to search cell phones incident to an arrest without a warrant.

These are just the latest in a long line of cases in which the Court has had to try to graft the text of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures onto modern technology.

Since 2001, the Court has ruled that placing a GPS device on an individual’s car constitutes a search (United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012)), the warrantless use of a thermal device to scan the inside of a home for evidence of heat lamps that could be used to grow marijuana violates the Fourth Amendment (Kyllo), and, my personal favorite, that a California law limiting the sale of violent video games to minors violated the First Amendment (Brown v. Entm’t Merchs. Ass’n, 131 S. Ct. 2729 (2011)).

Brown is noteworthy not just for the Court’s strong affirmation of the First Amendment, but also for revealing the limits of the Justices’ understanding of modern technology. During oral argument Justice Elena Kagan stated, “A reasonable jury could find that Mortal Kombat -- which is, you know, an iconic game, which I'm sure half of the clerks who work for us spent considerable amounts of time in their adolescence playing,” at which point Justice Scalia interjected, to the laughter of the courtroom, “I don't know what she's talking about.”

Suffice to say, every Supreme Court justice has a cell phone (whether they have smart phones is another story—the Justices are famous for their paper-based inter-chambers communication), and therefore the issues at stake in the Court today should be at least somewhat familiar.

What are those issues precisely? From my perspective, there are two major questions posed by these cases: (1) What types of content on a phone carry a reasonable expectation of privacy; and (2) How (if at all) does the advent of “cloud” based storage change the calculus for police who seek to preserve evidence incident to an arrest?

First, as NYCLU Associate Legal Director Chris Dunn wrote in a column in the New York Law Journal in February, our phones include a vast amount of information, from emails, photographs, and social media postings to browsing histories, financial data, and GPS-based location tracking.

Some of these “possessions”—like financial records and health information—would seem to fall under the most stringent privacy protection, while others, particularly social media postings (which almost by definition are meant for public display/dissemination), seem to lack the type of reasonable expectation of privacy usually linked with the Fourth Amendment.

Indeed, given that law enforcement agencies already patrol Facebook/Twitter/etc for leads—particularly regarding youth gangs—it would seem odd to
 not permit cops to examine public social media postings after an arrest, even without a warrant.

On the other hand, why not get a warrant in these situations? For one, a legitimate fear that has long been cited for the need to quickly perform a search incident to an arrest is the concern that evidence could be tampered with, spoiled, or otherwise rendered useless during the booking process. Today, digital “evidence” is uniquely capable of being destroyed from anywhere at anytime by anyone, since a friend could theoretically log in to someone's account and delete potentially incriminating material. That concern creates at least some urgency to a review.

While the First Circuit insisted in Wurie that officers could remove the phone battery, place the phone in a available bag that blocks incoming signals, or copy the phone’s contents without examining them before obtaining a warrant, the fact remains that the evidence accessible via the phone often isn’t on the physical phone. Even the New York Times editorial board fell into this trap, insisting that “any evidence on the phone can be preserved by using special devices to prevent remote deletion of the data.” That’s not true now and is far from a guarantee in the future.

Finding a way to preserve potential evidence stored in the cloud within the framework of the warrant system is a challenge, but not an impossible one. Warrant procedures would need to be streamlined—such that if probable cause exists that evidence of a crime is accessible via the phone, a warrant could be issued in something close to real time.

Establishing such a system is important because the Times is right on the merits—cell phones today are not the 5-pound blocks of Wall Street fame, but are instead repositories of our most intimate associations, private thoughts, and day-to-day movements. For originalists, this means viewing phones as diaries, bank ledgers, and general store receipts rolled into one—precisely the type of “papers and effects” that the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect.

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