cell phone

All posts tagged cell phone

locked cell phone

This week the New York Times published an op-ed which argued for allowing law enforcement officers with search warrants greater access to the cell phone data of criminal suspects.  The piece was co-written by an impressive set of authors: the District Attorney of Manhattan, the chief prosecutor of Paris, the commissioner of the City of London Police, and the chief prosecutor of the High Court of Spain.  They note that many modern cell phones are password protected, and that Apple and Google (whose operating systems together run about 96% of cell phones) no longer have a copy of that password and therefore police cannot access these cell phones even if they have legal authority to do so.  The piece argues that once law enforcement officers have obtained a warrant (having thus proved to a neutral magistrate that there is probable cause to believe there is incriminating information on the cell phone), there should be no technical barrier (such as password protection) to extracting that information from the digital device.  As they argue:

In the United States, Britain, France, Spain and other democratic societies, the legal system gives local law enforcement agencies access to places where criminals hide evidence, including their homes, car trunks, storage facilities, computers and digital networks.

Carved into the bedrock of each of these laws is a balance between the privacy rights of individuals and the public safety rights of their communities. For our investigators to conduct searches in any of our jurisdictions, a local judge or commissioner must decide whether good cause exists. None of our agencies engage in bulk data collection or other secretive practices. We engage in targeted requests for information, authorized after an impartial, judicial determination of good cause, in which both proportionality and necessity are tested.

It is this workable balance that proscribes the operations of local law enforcement in our cities, and guides our residents in developing their expectations of privacy. But in the absence of laws that keep pace with technology, we have enabled two Silicon Valley technology companies to upset that balance fundamentally.

Judging by the comments posted by the Times, the op-ed was not well-received by the readership: readers argued that encryption protects our data from thieves and hackers as well as from police; that political dissidents and activists rely upon it to communicate safely; and (echoing Riley v. California) that the sheer amount of information on a cell phone means that they need to be protected, even from police officers with search warrants.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation predictably warned that the piece was “nothing more than a blatant attempt to use fear mongering to further their anti-privacy, anti-security, and anti-constitutional agenda.”

It is hard to see what is “unconstitutional” about giving law enforcement access to information once they have obtained a warrant for that information.  Just because we now have the ability to easily password-protect  much of our personal data doesn’t mean that we somehow have greater constitutional rights in that information than we did twenty years ago.  Indeed, if the police had a search warrant for a fine cabinet, they should be able to look inside the file cabinet whether or not the owner has locked it.  The same argument should apply to cell phones–once a court has authorized the search, the police need to (and should be able to) conduct that search.

The real problem–and one that the authors of the op-ed do not really address–is how to go about ensuring that the police do have this ability once a warrant is issued.  The op-ed merely states that “regulators and lawmakers in our nations must now find an appropriate balance between the marginal benefits of full-disk encryption and the need for local law enforcement to solve and prosecute crimes.”  But it is one thing to ask for a “balance” and another to figure out what laws need to be passed to ensure that balance.  One option would be to require the manufacturers of digital devices to provide the government with a “master key” to every cell phone–but the danger of abuse in that context becomes quite obvious.  Another option would be to require the companies that design operating systems to keep a copy of every password (thus making it illegal for Apple or Google to use the operating systems they are currently using)–but this seems like a particularly severe government intrusion into the private sector.  Yet another option would be to allow police to compel the password from the owner of the device, but this raises serious Fifth Amendment questions.  Some courts have held that forcing a suspect to give up his own password is akin to self-incrimination, citing a United States Supreme Court decision which stated that the Fifth Amendment protects a defendant from producing documents which may be incriminating.

In short, the op-ed correctly identified a problem, but was silent on the solution.  Unless and until law enforcement officers develop the tools to break through password-protected phones, this problem will grow more and more severe until one of the more draconian solutions listed above becomes necessary.


A few months ago I wrote about (and strongly criticized) the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in United States v. Davis, in which the court held that the government needed to obtain a search warrant before it could access cell tower location information that located the defendant’s cell phone.  Now the Eleventh Circuit, in an en banc decision, has overturned the three-judge panel and held that the third-party doctrine applies to these records; thus, a warrant is not required.


The court began by citing the Fifth Circuit decision which also applied the third party doctrine in deciding this issue.  Then the court applied Smith v. Maryland and found that the Davis case was legally no different from Smith:

For starters, like the bank customer in Miller and the phone customer in Smith, Davis can assert neither ownership nor possession of the third-party’s business records he sought to suppress. Instead, those cell tower records were created by MetroPCS, stored on its own premises, and subject to its control. Cell tower location records do not contain private communications of the subscriber. This type of non-content evidence, lawfully created by a third-party telephone company for legitimate business purposes, does not belong to Davis, even if it concerns him. Like the security camera surveillance images introduced into evidence at his trial, MetroPCS’s cell tower records were not Davis’s to withhold. Those surveillance camera images show Davis’s location at the precise location of the robbery, which is far more than MetroPCS’s cell tower location records show.

The Court not only applies the third party doctrine, it presents a robust defense of the doctrine in this context, harkening back to the Katz test:

As to the subjective expectation of privacy, we agree with the Fifth Circuit that cell users know that they must transmit signals to cell towers within range, that the cell tower functions as the equipment that connects the calls, that users when making or receiving calls are necessarily conveying or exposing to their service provider their general location within that cell tower’s range, and that cell phone companies make records of cell-tower usage. See In re Application (Fifth Circuit), 724 F.3d at 613-14. Users are aware that cell phones do not work when they are outside the range of the provider company’s cell tower network. Id. at 613. Indeed, the fact that Davis registered his cell phone under a fictitious alias tends to demonstrate his understanding that such cell tower location information is collected by MetroPCS and may be used to incriminate him.

Even if Davis had a subjective expectation of privacy, his expectation of privacy, viewed objectively, is not justifiable or reasonable under the particular circumstances of this case. The unreasonableness in society’s eyes dooms Davis’s position under Katz. In Smith, the Supreme Court presumed that phone users knew of uncontroverted and publicly available facts about technologies and practices that the phone company used to connect calls, document charges, and assist in legitimate law-enforcement investigations. See 442 U.S. at 742-43, 99 S. Ct. at 2581. Cell towers and related records are used for all three of those purposes. We find no reason to conclude that cell phone users lack facts about the functions of cell towers or about telephone providers’ recording cell tower usage.

Although the third party doctrine has been routinely criticized, applying it makes sense in this context.  As the court notes, surely every reasonable person knows that the telephone company can track their general location using the person’s cell phone–how else could cell phones function?  And, notwithstanding the famous concurrence in United States v. Jones, a person generally does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place.

The en banc decision also provides an “alternative” justification for its ruling, which is that even if the third party doctrine did not apply, the search was “reasonable” because the intrusion into privacy was minimal, cell tower location information is routinely used by government investigators, Congress has explicitly endorsed this type of investigation in the Stored Communications Act, and the government’s interest in tracking down criminals is “compelling.”  Professor Orin Kerr had a number of withering critique of this alternative justification in his blog post; one of which was that the “reasonableness” test (as opposed to the warrant requirement) should only be applied in non-criminal cases:

A basic summary of the Supreme Court’s cases might run something like this: When the search involves some kind of non-criminal investigation or purpose, the warrant requirement is often suspended. In that non-criminal context, reasonableness instead becomes a general balancing of interests. The Court has been expanding the general balancing cases, most recently in Maryland v. King. But the Katz rule of a warrant by default is still the Supreme Court’s blackletter law for a traditional criminal investigation search.

In this case, the Eleventh Circuit appears to take a different approach. It begins with the Supreme Court’s non-criminal cases and then applies them to the context of a classic criminal investigation. Instead of the Katz rule of a warrant, the court begins with general balancing. It’s important to catch criminals, the court reasons, and the statute has some good protections given that this wasn’t such an invasive practice. So on the whole the government’s conduct based on reasonable suspicion seems reasonable and therefore constitutional.

This alternative holding is a major development, I think. It’s at odds with the usual rule that a criminal search requires a warrant, and instead replaces it with a totality of the circumstances inquiry into whether the criminal search was the kind of thing that we would generally say is good or would generally say is bad. There’s not only no warrant requirement, there’s no probable cause requirement: It’s just a free-floating reasonableness inquiry.

Professor Kerr has a good point here, but he might be fighting a losing battle.  In reality,  the distinction between “criminal searches” and “non-criminal searches” is becoming blurred almost beyond recognition.  Special needs searches have always been evaluated on a “reasonableness” standard, and many of them are nothing but criminal searches thinly masquerading as non-criminal searches (for example, testing for drugs in schools, stopping cars to check for drunk drivers, and searching passengers before they board an airplane).  Most recently, in Maryland v. King, the Supreme Court applied the reasonableness test to DNA swab of arrestees which was used to determine if the arrestee had committed any other crimes was not a “criminal search.”  Applying the reasonableness test to the obtaining of cell phone location data in a bank robbery investigation definitely pushes the envelope even further, but it continues a trend which has been building for a while.

Of course, this aspect of the Davis en banc decision is merely dicta, so perhaps nothing at all will come of it.  But as far as the holding of the case is concerned, the court has at least brought consistency back to this area of law.


In one of the first circuit court cases to consider the search of a cell phone incident to arrest in the post-Riley world, the Ninth Circuit firmly rejected all of the government’s attempts to make an end-run around the Riley case.  In United States v. Camou, a police officer arrested Chad Camou and  his girlfriend Ashley Lundy for smuggling an illegal immigrant.  During her interrogation, Lundy told the officers that they had received instructions on where to pick up the immigrant from a person named “Mother Theresa.”   In the meantime, Camou’s cell phone (which had been seized by the police) rang several times, and Lundy identified the number as belonging to Mother Theresa.   The officer looked  through the call log of the telephone, and found a number of other calls from Mother Theresa.  The officer then examined the photos on the phone and found–you guessed it–child pornography.  Camou was duly charged with possession of child pornography.  (The original immigration smuggling charges were dropped).

The government had three plausible arguments to get around the Riley decision.  First, the government argued that the because the defendants were arrested in their vehicle, the automobile exception should apply instead of the search incident to arrest exception.  Under Gant, the police are allowed to search any container that is found in a car as long as there is reason to believe that the container contains evidence or contraband–and given the facts of the case, the police probably had reason to believe there was information about the crime of arrest on the phone.  The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument, extending the Riley rationale to the automobile exception:

Given the Court’s extensive analysis of cell phones as “containers” and cell phone searches in the vehicle context, we find no reason not to extend the reasoning in Riley from the search incident to arrest exception to the vehicle exception. Just as “[c]ell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person,” so too do cell phones differ from any other object officers might find in a vehicle. Id. at 2489. Today’s cell phones are unlike any of the container examples the Supreme Court has provided in the vehicle context. Whereas luggage, boxes, bags, clothing, lunch buckets, orange crates, wrapped packages, glove compartments, and locked trunks are capable of physically “holding another object,” see Belton, 453 U.S. at 460 n.4, “[m]odern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse,” Riley, 134 S. Ct. at 2488-89 . In fact, “a cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house.” Id. at 2491 (emphasis in original).

The government then argued that the exigency exception should apply–a possibility that was explicitly kept open in the Riley decision.  But the Ninth Circuit rejected this as well.  The court quoted the Supreme Court’s language in Riley:
“When “the police are truly confronted with a ‘now or never’ situation—for example, circumstances suggesting that a defendant’s phone will be the target of an imminent remote-wipe attempt—they may be able to rely on exigent circumstances to search the phone immediately.”    But the Ninth Circuit held that the government did not meet its burden of proving any “special circumstances” in this case: “Here, the search of Camou’s cell phone occurred one hour and twenty minutes after his arrest. This was not an “imminent” “now or never situation” such that the exigency exception would apply. Moreover, the record does not indicate that Agent Walla believed the call logs on Camou’s cell phone were volatile and that a search of Camou’s phone was necessary to prevent the loss of recent call data.” 

Finally, the government argued that the good faith exception should apply, since the police officer conducted the search before Riley had been decided, and thus under Herring v. United States, the police officer acted in good faith.   The Ninth Circuit pointed out that even before Riley had been decided, the law stated that a search incident to a lawful arrest had to occur “contemporaneously” with the arrest, and that this search occurred eighty minutes after the arrest.  The government had responded to this argument by claiming that Herring held that a mistake by the police officer would not invalidate the search unless the officer acted “reckless or deliberate” officer conduct.  But just as the Ninth Circuit interpreted Riley broadly, it interpreted Herring narrowly:

The Supreme Court has never applied the good faith exception to excuse an officer who was negligent himself, and whose negligence directly led to the violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights.3 Here, the government fails to assert that Agent Walla relied on anyone or anything in conducting his search of Camou’s cell phone, let alone that any reliance was reasonable. The government instead only asserts that by searching the phone, Agent Walla was not acting “recklessly[,] or deliberately” misbehaving.  In this case, the good faith exception cannot apply.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit pointed out that even if one of these exceptions had applied, the government would still have lost the case because the police search of the phone was not supported by probable cause.  Although the police had probable case to believe that the phone call logs contained evidence of the immigration crime (and thus the police could presumably have obtained a warrant to look at the call logs), the search they conducted was overbroad because the police went beyond the phone log and searched through Camou’s photos and videos as well.  Like the reasoning in the rest of the opinion, this part of the holding demonstrates that the Ninth Circuit is embracing the spirit of the Riley decision by treating smart phone searches as qualitatively different from any other type of search.