Federal Judge Says Third Party Doctrine A Perfectly 'Good Law;' No Warrants Needed To Obtain Cell Location Records
from the multiple-government-agencies-agree! dept
Back in December, a Connecticut state court ruled that tracking people in near-real time with cell site location info required the use of a warrant. Three months later, a Connecticut federal court has ruled law enforcement can obtain CSLI without a warrant, in bulk and for extended periods of time. While the opinion doesn’t address the use of subpoenas and CSLI as a makeshift Stingray (for real-time tracking), it does come down firmly on the side of the government’s interpretation of the Third Party Doctrine.
Here, the Government acquired information about defendant that was in the possession of a third-party—Verizon—and that the acquisition of this information did not involve any trespass upon defendant’s body, house, papers, or effects and did not involve any interference at all with defendant’s possessory interests in any of his property.
The opinion leans heavily on every decision finding that there’s no expectation of privacy in records held by third parties. The court makes the slightest nod to the current discussion of expectations of privacy in a world where the devices most people carry generate a wealth of information and data nearly non-stop. But it does so with wording that shows it has no interest in engaging in this discussion.
The third-party doctrine has been subject to tsunamis of criticism. But it doubtlessly remains good law today.
And, like other decisions along the same lines, the court echoes the government’s assertions that every cell phone user is perfectly aware their phones are sending all sorts of information to the nearest cell tower.
Defendant also contends that cell-site location information is not voluntarily conveyed to one’s cellular telephone company in the same sense or manner that one voluntarily conveys financial information to a bank as in Miller or telephone numbers to a telephone company as in Smith. Although this rationale has convinced some courts to conclude that the third-party doctrine does not apply, I do not agree. Every cell phone customer knows that his or her information is relayed wirelessly to nearby cell phone towers. It can come as no surprise that one’s cell phone company keeps records of cell towers that are accessed by and necessary to the provision and connection of every customer’s cell phone service. This is no different than every customer’s awareness that the bank keeps records of one’s checks and transactions (Miller) and that the telephone company keeps records of the telephone numbers that one calls (Smith).
The court also points out there’s no bright line determination as to how much is too much when it comes to acquiring location records. (The defendant raised the argument that 22 days of CSLI was excessive without the use of a warrant.) As the court logically points out, any determination on an acceptable time frame would be completely arbitrary and mostly useless.
As for the Third Party Doctrine’s possible inapplicability in today’s world, the court says that’s up to Congress to fix, not the courts.
All that said, the critics of the third-party doctrine have strong arguments it does not adequately protect privacy—that it imposes an unacceptable and Orwellian cost of forfeiture of any claim of privacy to what we voluntarily disclose even in confidence to one another. The critics persuasively argue that the doctrine is especially problematic in our ever expanding technology-dependent and technology-intrusive society. But these are arguments for policymakers in Congress to consider, if Congress wishes to enact protections that exceed the Fourth Amendment baseline.
In the meantime, the obligation remains for the lower courts to follow the law and not to impose—no matter how techno-intellectually fashionable—an “everything is different because it’s an iPhone” theory of the Fourth Amendment.
The issue of real-time warrantless tracking remains unaddressed as this case only dealt with historic data. The question of the Third Party Doctrine is punted back to Congress — which has proven mostly uninterested in updating outdated laws to better conform to today’s reality. Even with a boot up the ladder to a higher court is unlikely to result in a re-reading of the Third Party Doctrine. The Supreme Court has only determined that long-term location tracking might need a warrant. As it stands now, the acquisition of third-party records violates no one’s privacy, legally-speaking.