The Abandonment of Digital Devices

Our cell phones and laptops normally are subject to a reasonable expectation of privacy, meaning that police cannot search them without a search warrant or an applicable exception to the warrant requirement. But when a person abandons a digital device, he or she relinquishes that expectation of privacy and police may examine the device without a warrant or an exception. This post discusses when a device has been abandoned and explores several common fact patterns.

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Update on Pole Cameras and the Fourth Amendment

When an officer attaches a video camera to a utility pole and uses it to monitor a suspect’s home continuously for several months, is that a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment? Or is it just the officer seeing what any passer-by might see, such that there is no intrusion on the suspect’s reasonable expectation of privacy? This issue has been a focal point of litigation since Carpenter v. United States, 585 U.S. ___, 138 S.Ct. 2206 (2018), which held that the long-term collection of historical cell site location information is so intrusive that it is a search, even though any individual piece of such data does not belong to the phone’s user and is not subject to a reasonable expectation of privacy. Whether the rationale of Carpenter extends to pole cameras has been addressed before on this blog, most recently here and here by Shea Denning. But there are a number of new cases in this area, which I have summarized below.

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Supreme Court Rules that Obtaining Cell Site Location Information Is a Search

On Friday, the Supreme Court issued a long-awaited opinion in Carpenter v. United States. The Court held that when law enforcement obtains long-term cell site location information from a suspect’s service provider, it conducts a Fourth Amendment search that normally requires a warrant. Although the majority opinion states that it “is a narrow one,” the dissenting Justices and some scholars see it as a seismic shift that may have many aftershocks. I’ll summarize the case and then use former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s famous approach to address the “known knowns,” the “known unknowns,” and the “unknown unknowns” after Carpenter.

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Supreme Court: Driver of Rental Car, Not Listed on Rental Agreement, Has Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

A week ago today, the Supreme Court of the United States resolved a circuit split and ruled that a person driving a rental car, but not listed on the rental agreement, has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle . . . at least sometimes. The case is Byrd v. United States.

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Questions and Resources about Searches of Cloud Storage

If a law enforcement officer obtains a search warrant for a suspect’s cell phone, may the officer use the phone to access cloud storage to which it is linked? For example, may the officer click on the Dropbox icon on the phone’s home screen and see what’s there?

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Pole Camera Surveillance Under the Fourth Amendment

Placing a video camera on a utility pole and conducting surveillance can be a useful law enforcement tool to gather information without requiring an in-person presence by officers at all times. But this tool may be subject to the Fourth Amendment restrictions. This post reviews the evolving case law, particularly since the United States Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012).

Jeff Welty in a 2013 post reviewed video surveillance generally, not just pole cameras, and discussed Jones and the few cases decided in light of its ruling. This post, after reviewing Jones, will discuss a few pole camera cases decided in federal courts since his post and whether officers should seek approval from a court before conducting pole camera surveillance.

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May an Officer Assume a False Identity Online in Order to “Friend” a Suspect?

Officers are allowed to misrepresent their identities in the course of their investigations: they may pose as drug buyers, or prostitutes, or members of an organized crime syndicate. Is the same thing true online? In other words, may an officer claim to be someone else in order to “friend” a suspect on social media and thereby gain access to whatever information the suspect has posted? The answer isn’t clear yet, but I would guess that courts ultimately will say yes.

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The Supreme Court on GPS Tracking: U.S. v. Jones

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court decided United States v. Jones, the important GPS tracking case I previously blogged about here. (The case was captioned United States v. Maynard at that time.) In brief, Washington, DC officers suspected that the defendant was a drug dealer. They wanted to track his movements, so they obtained a … Read more

Do Multi-Unit Dwellings Have Curtilage?

The curtilage of a home is the area “directly and intimately connected with the [home] and in proximity” to it. State v. Courtright, 60 N.C. App. 247 (1983). In other words, it is the area that “harbors the intimate activity associated with the sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life.” United States … Read more

Guests’ Expectation of Privacy in Garages and Outbuildings

I’ve had a couple of questions recently about something that I’d never considered before: whether a guest has “standing” to contest a search of the outbuildings associated with a host’s home. Most readers will know the legal backdrop. In order to argue that the results of an allegedly illegal police search should be suppressed, a … Read more