from the bring-on-the-cellphone-tracking-devices! dept
An interesting ruling out of Georgia states that an unconventional method to determine a cell phone's owner is not a search under the Fourth Amendment. The appeals court decides [PDF] that the information obtained has no expectation of privacy.
Because Hill had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the information at issue – his own name, date of birth, and phone number – we agree with the state there was no search under the Fourth Amendment, and accordingly we reverse.
The background is this: James Brandon Hill exited a taxi cab without paying, leaving his phone behind. The cab driver reported this to the police and an officer dialed 911 to obtain the owner's info. The court doesn't touch the issue of abandonment -- which would likely have made the search legal. But its decision that the method used to obtain this info isn't a search seems to be a bit off.
While the information received may have had no expectation of privacy, an officer accessing a cell phone without a warrant is questionable under the Supreme Court's Riley decision. As noted above, the warrantless search still likely would have survived a motion to suppress as the phone was abandoned in the cab. In fact, Hill does not challenge the seizure of the phone -- only the search.
The Third Party Doctrine is in play here, what with this information being handed over to a service provider in exchange for phone service. The opinion quotes Orin Kerr in support of its Third Party Doctrine assertions.
Consistent with this distinction, we have held in a case involving a landline phone that the Fourth Amendment “protects only the content of a telephone conversation and not the fact that a call was placed or that a particular number was dialed.” Stephenson, supra, 171 Ga. App. at 939 (citation and punctuation omitted). See generally Orin S. Kerr, Applying the Fourth Amendment to the Internet: A General Approach, 62 Stan. L. Rev. 1005, 1019 (II) (A) (2010) (originating telephone number is non-content information analogous to return address on envelope).
But that applies only to phone call routing info, not the user's personal information. It's a good thing this citation isn't a direct comparison because Orin Kerr doesn't agree with the court's decision on the search issue.
Held: Calling 911 from a phone is not a “search” because it only obtains non-content information about the phone that is not protected under Smith v. Maryland.
I don’t think that reasoning works, as it’s mixing up two different questions: (1) whether calling from the phone is a search of the phone, and (2) whether, once the call is placed, receiving the number dialed at 911 is a search of the number. I think calling 911 is a search because of (1), not because of (2). Calling 911 pushes out the number from the phone, and I think that forced revealing of the number should count as a search of the phone.
The decision's implications go much further than this one-off case where an abandoned phone was discovered and "forced" to reveal user info by a law enforcement officer. Think Stingrays. From the opinion:
The fact that it was a law enforcement officer, rather than Hill, who placed a call from the phone does not change our conclusion that the information obtained was not subject to Fourth Amendment protection. Cases from other jurisdictions illustrate this point. In United States v. Skinner, 690 F3d 772, 777-778 (II) (A) (6th Cir. 2012), for example, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that law enforcement agents could take action to cause a cellular phone to emit information from which they could track it without running afoul of the Fourth Amendment, because the defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location data emitted from the phone.
If this isn't a search, then the use of an IMSI catcher isn't a search, even though it involves the manipulation of a person's phone by law enforcement to obtain information otherwise not immediately obtainable.
As for the Riley decision, the court decides use of the phone is not the same as accessing the phone's contents.
Here, in contrast to Riley, the officer did not access any files on Hill’s phone, which was protected by a passcode. He “did not attempt to retrieve any information from within the phone,” United States v. Lawing, 703 F3d 229, 238 (II) (A) (ii) (4th Cir. 2012), but instead used the phone in a manner that caused it to send Hill’s telephone number to a third party, the 911 dispatcher. We do not construe Riley to prohibit an officer in lawful possession of a cellular phone from placing a call on that phone in an attempt to obtain identifying information about its owner. Moreover, we do not construe Riley to recognize a legitimate expectation of privacy in identifying, non-content information such as the person’s own phone number, address, birthdate, simply because that information was associated with a cellular phone account rather than a landline phone account or a piece of physical mail.
While historical cell site location info is generally considered to be free of expectations of privacy under the Third Party Doctrine, real-time access of this same information is still under discussion in several courts. Making the argument that law enforcement manipulation of a person's cell phone to extract information not otherwise immediately obtainable suggests that this particular court would look favorably on the use of Stingray devices to locate cell phones. After all, the phone's location is a third-party record, even though it's not a third-party record that isn't normally obtainable as it's being generated.
It's a limited ruling from a state appeals court, but it still shows advances in surveillance tech will be granted a lot of leeway by judges because of a decision nearly four decades old at this point (Smith v. Maryland, 1979). Had the court come to the conclusion it was a search, it wouldn't have saved Hill (because he abandoned his phone), but it at least would have recognized it's one thing to obtain third-party records from a third party. It's quite another when the government uses a closed loop to obtain the same info.