4th Amendment Victories

By Electronic Frontier Foundation

It’s been a great week for electronic privacy and the 4th Amendment!

In a decision issued yesterday, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the government must have a search warrant before it can seize and search emails stored by third party email service providers. And today, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with EFF and refused the government’s request to reconsider an earlier pro-privacy decision, which held that federal magistrates have the discretion to require the government to get a search warrant based on probable cause before obtaining cell phone location records.

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Dec. 14, 2010

In a landmark decision issued today in the criminal appeal of U.S. v. Warshak, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the government must have a search warrant before it can secretly seize and search emails stored by email service providers. Closely tracking arguments made by EFF in its amicus brief, the court found that email users have the same reasonable expectation of privacy in their stored email as they do in their phone calls and postal mail.

EFF filed a similar amicus brief with the 6th Circuit in 2006 in a civil suit brought by criminal defendant Warshak against the government for its warrantless seizure of his emails. There, the 6th Circuit agreed with EFF that email users have a Fourth Amendment-protected expectation of privacy in the email they store with their email providers, though that decision was later vacated on procedural grounds. Warshak’s appeal of his criminal conviction has brought the issue back to the Sixth Circuit, and once again the court has agreed with EFF and held that email users have a Fourth Amendment-protected reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of their email accounts.

As the Court held today,

Given the fundamental similarities between email and traditional forms of communication [like postal mail and telephone calls], it would defy common sense to afford emails lesser Fourth Amendment protection…. It follows that email requires strong protection under the Fourth Amendment; otherwise the Fourth Amendment would prove an ineffective guardian of private communication, an essential purpose it has long been recognized to serve…. [T]he police may not storm the post office and intercept a letter, and they are likewise forbidden from using the phone system to make a clandestine recording of a telephone call–unless they get a warrant, that is. It only stands to reason that, if government agents compel an ISP to surrender the contents of a subscriber’s emails, those agents have thereby conducted a Fourth Amendment search, which necessitates compliance with the warrant requirement….

Today’s decision is the only federal appellate decision currently on the books that squarely rules on this critically important privacy issue, an issue made all the more important by the fact that current federal law–in particular, the Stored Communications Act–allows the government to secretly obtain emails without a warrant in many situations. We hope that this ruling will spur Congress to update that law as EFF and its partners in the Digital Due Process coalition have urged, so that when the government secretly demands someone’s email without probable cause, the email provider can confidently say: “Come back with a warrant.”

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Dec. 15, 2010

In EFF’s second major privacy victory in as many days, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals today denied the government’s request that it reconsider its September decision regarding government access to cell phone company records that reveal your past locations. That means the court’s original opinion — holding that federal magistrates have the discretion to require the government to get a search warrant based on probable cause before obtaining cell phone location records — is now the settled law of the Third Circuit, assuming the government doesn’t seek review by the Supreme Court. Importantly, this victory won’t just provide greater protection for the privacy of your cell phone records but for all other communications records that the government currently obtains without warrants.

As we summarized when we filed our latest brief opposing the government’s petition to the Third Circuit for a rehearing, this appellate case — awkwardly titled In the Matter of the Application of the USA for an Order Directing a Provider of Electronic Communication Service to Disclose Records to the Government — was sparked when the government appealed a lower court judge’s denial of a government request for a court order to obtain cell phone location records without probable cause. In September, we won a great victory when the the three-judge panel reviewing the case agreed with EFF’s arguments and held that federal law gives magistrates the discretion to require warrants for such data. The panel did not reach the question of whether the Fourth Amendment requires warrants in such cases — we think it does — but instead ordered the case back to the magistrate for her to develop a fuller factual record supporting the use of her discretion. However, the government threw a wrench in that plan earlier this month, asking all of the judges in the Circuit — in legal terms, the entire court sitting “en banc” — to review and overturn the panel ruling. And today, the government got its answer from the Third Circuit: no. The decision stands.

This victory is particularly gratifying because the Third Circuit’s decision has implications far beyond cell phone location privacy. The main holding of the case was a general ruling about the federal Stored Communications Act (“SCA”), the portion of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 that regulates communications providers disclosure of communications content and records. That statute is regularly used by the government to secretly obtain a broad range of content and records, not just cell phone location records, based not a probable cause warrant but on a much easier to obtain court order that doesn’t require probable cause (often called a “D Order” since they are authorized in subsection (d) of section 2703 of the SCA). For example, the government routinely obtains email content using D orders instead of warrants (you may remember we joined with Yahoo! to beat back such a request just this summer).

The key holding in this case affects the basic operation of the SCA for D Orders. What the Third Circuit held was that, when the government applies for a D Order, the judge has the discretion to deny that application and instead require a warrant in order to avoid potential Fourth Amendment problems. This is an incredibly powerful pro-privacy ruling, especially compared to the government’s position that courts must grant D orders when the government meets the minimal, non-probable cause factual showing that the statute requires. The Third Circuit has clarified that judges can deny D Order applications — for cell phone records, for emails, or anything else — so long as they have reason to believe that the order might violate the Fourth Amendment.

Although this decision is only binding in the Third Circuit, we expect it will newly embolden magistrates across the country to deny government applications that raise serious Fourth Amendment questions. And it certainly will assist EFF and other friends of the court when we fight against such government applications — we no longer have to convince magistrates that the government’s requested order would violate the Fourth Amendment, but only that it might. Meanwhile, the Third Circuit’s decision also strengthened those Fourth Amendment arguments, by being the first federal appellate decision in more than 30 years to hold that you can have a reasonable expectation of privacy in records that a company keeps about you, another key ruling that has implications far beyond cell phone location privacy.

All in all, it’s been a great week for electronic privacy and the Fourth Amendment, so all we can wonder now is: what’s next? Whatever the latest developments, you can be sure to hear about them here on the Deeplinks blog. In the meantime, if you’re pleased by the work we’re doing to preserve your digital privacy, please consider joining EFF. It’s only because of the support of people like you that we’re able to fight (and sometimes even win!) these critical privacy battles.

Related Issues: Cell TrackingLocational PrivacyPrivacy

One response to “4th Amendment Victories

  1. yeah, i know, but we gotta take time to smell the flowers… to recognize the good when we see it… to let our hearts be warmed by even the tiniest of victories…

    that’s what the grand revolution requires of us…

    from such small victories we maintain hope

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