Tag Archives: Fourth Amendment

Maryland v. King: Supreme Court Rules That Warrantless DNA Swabs of Arrestees Are A-OK

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[Originally published before the ruling; text and headline updated to reflect it. – Ed.]

The Supreme Court is considering the case Maryland v. King (thanks to Jennifer Wagner at Genomics Law Report for an excellent and detailed analysis), which turns on whether law enforcement needs a warrant to take the DNA of someone arrested and charged with, but not yet convicted of a crime. Maryland AG Douglas Gansler has argued to NPR that the privacy intrusion involved is negligible:

“They’re presumed innocent when they’re handcuffed; they’re presumed innocent when they’re strip-searched; and they’re presumed innocent when they’re sitting in jail awaiting trial,” he observes. “Those are far greater invasions of privacy than touching a Q-tip to the inside of your cheek for a second.”

The cheek swab taken from Mr. King came up with a hit for a six-year-old rape case. King was convicted of that charge, and is serving life in prison. King’s attorney, Kannon Shanmugam, argues that the intrusiveness of the search comes from the fact that the search was capable of disclosing a wide array of deeply personal information, and was taken at a time when his client had not been charged with any crime:

“The default rule under the Fourth Amendment is that when a search takes place, it has to be supported either by a warrant issued by a magistrate or by some level of individualized suspicion”

In this case, two very different conceptions of the Fourth Amendment collide. It was once the case that the physical intrusiveness of a search more or less tracked with the amount of information about the arrestee that the search would disclose. Fourth Amendment jurisprudence built up a careful set of rules regarding stops, patdowns and strip-searches, each of which would disclose more than the last and received correspondingly more careful scrutiny.

That relationship is now breaking down. People with smartphones carry their whole lives in a readily searchable object in their pocket, and searching that object is, in all ways but the physical, more intrusive than a strip search. Here, Gansler argues that because a cheek swab is easily taken and doesn’t even properly penetrate the body, it deserves less Fourth Amendment protection; Shanmugam argues that because the cheek swab can disclose information on which his client’s freedom may turn, it deserves the highest Constitutional protection. Read More →

Ace G-Man Knows All: FBI Agent Claims Power to Access Content of All Phone Calls Ever

Citizen! Were you under the misapprehension that the terrorist-sympathizing Supreme Court had ruled long ago that law enforcement had to get an actual warrant before accessing the content of your phone calls? Has that thought been keeping you up at night, because it allows people to express potentially un-American thoughts without the FBI being able to listen in and protect us? Well, fear no longer: your friendly neighborhood G-Man is on the case!

 

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Civil Liberties Commentary on the Boston Marathon Manhunt

A variety of excellent commentary over the weekend reflected on the civil liberties implications of the Boston Marathon attacks.

Over at Salon, Falguni Sheth and Robert Prasch used a thought experiment (What would have been different if the bombing had happened in 1977, before mass electronic surveillance?) to argue that the vast expenditure on the surveillance state has not had the net effect of either preventing terrorism or making apprehending terrorists more efficient; so why are we doing it, again?

At Popehat, Clark dissects the unprecedented, expensive and ineffectual lockdown of Boston and the western suburbs, and observes that it is only after the lockdown ended and citizens were back outside their doors that the suspect was located.

Last, there’s an excellent analysis and discussion of the Fourth Amendment issues raised by house-to-house searches for a fugitive by (once again) Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy. Enjoy!

The new Coakley bill, “An Act Updating the Wire Interception Law”, under a microscope

Want to know the details of what the new Coakley bill, An Act Updating the Wire Interception Law, really includes? Wonderful. I can already tell we’re going to be friends.

Here’s an advance hint: What do marijuana possession, annoying telephone calls, burglary, neglecting to depart a public assembly on the orders of police, failing to display the correct posters relating to the illegality of firearms and explosives in your school, and the sale of arrowheads used for hunting, have in common?

If you guessed “It isn’t legal in Massachusetts right now to take out an electronic wiretapping warrant for offenses this minor, but it would be under this bill”, then congratulations, you win the Grand Prize.

On, to a more detailed discussion!

There are three main points of this legislation:

1) To remove the requirement that an electronic wiretapping warrant be connected with organized crime, or indeed with serious crimes more generally.

2) To legalize mass interception of communications at telecommunications switching stations, rather than through individual wiretaps on individual phone numbers.

3) To double the length of an authorized wiretap, from 15 to 30 days.

A long-standing frustration of law enforcement in Massachusetts has been that the electronic wiretapping statute was drafted in response to the problem of organized crime specifically, rather than being devised to cover a certain set of the most serious crimes. So, in order to take out an electronic wiretapping warrant, law enforcement has first had to demonstrate that there is an ongoing investigation connected to organized crime, of which the wiretap would be a part.

From Digital Fourth’s analysis of nine US states (CT, FL, NJ, NV, NY, PA, RI, VA, WA), it is not unusual for the list of offenses to only include offenses characteristic of organized crime; it is unusual to require a prior demonstration that the specific offense under investigation is connected to organized crime. However, neither the AG nor the bill’s sponsors have yet been able to point to any case where a criminal was not brought to justice because of the lack of connection of his crime to organized crime, suggesting that this limitation on police activity has little actual effect on convictions.

Going beyond this, the bill before us implements a much broader list of offenses for which electronic wiretapping with a warrant is legal than is currently the case. We’re no longer talking about arson, rape, murder and witness intimidation in connection with organized crime. We’re talking about a wide array of offenses, down to the very minor ones listed above. Coakley proposes expanding the designated offenses to cover every possible firearms and drug offense, down to simple marijuana possession, and also every kind of illegal threat, harassment and hazing, or conspiracy to commit such crimes. This could be read as a response not only to the Newtown massacre and associated calls for gun control, but also to the sad cases of cyberbullying that Massachusetts has seen in its schools.

The most worrying new element in this bill is the conscious inclusion of language allowing wiretaps to be placed at phone companies’ switching stations. Let me show you what I mean.

Old language:

1. The term “wire communication” means any transfer made in whole or in part through the use of facilities for the transmission of communications by the aid of wire, cable, or other like connection between the point of origin and the point of reception

New language:

1. The term “wire communication” means any transfer made in whole or in part through the use of facilities for the transmission of communications by the aid of wire, cable, or other like connection between the point of origin and the point of reception, including the use of such connection in a switching station, furnished or operated by any person engaged in providing or operating such facilities for the transmission of such communications and shall include: any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photo-electronic or photo-optical system, but shall not include: (i) any communication made through a tone-only paging device; (ii) any communication from a tracking device, defined as an electronic or mechanical device which permits the tracking of the movement of a person or object; or (iii) electronic funds transfer information stored by a financial institution in a communications system used for the electronic storage and transfer of funds. 

Surveillance activists are well aware that one of the biggest surveillance-related cases of recent years has involved the activities uncovered by whistleblower Mark Klein, where the NSA installed an electronic intercept for all phone traffic at an AT&T switching station in San Francisco (Jewel v. NSA). The conscious inclusion of such language by Coakley here suggests that law enforcement in Massachusetts would like to be able to start doing such things under color of law. A ruling is still pending on this case, but it is hard to square such activities with the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that:

no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This “particularity” requirement is a settled part of Fourth Amendment law, and there is no question that in trying to legalize this practice, Coakley is opening the AG’s office to being sued on constitutional grounds, which could cost the Commonwealth a bundle.

The provision to double the length of an authorized wiretap is unsurprising, and is pretty much a matter of convenience for law enforcement. Here at Digital Fourth, we have obtained through public records requests a complete list of the electronic wiretaps taken out in Massachusetts by the AG’s office and DAs’ offices during 2011 (information on 2012 is being collected). Of the total of 16 warrants issued, 9 had to be renewed, though none appear to have had to have been renewed twice. Presumably this fact is motivating the proposal to extend the date. However, neither the AG’s office nor the DAs’ offices report any denials of renewal applications. This implies that a renewal takes effort on the part of the prosecutor, but that there is no plausible doubt that an application to renew, once received, will be denied. Therefore, we are once again out of the zone of “reducing the ability of prosecutors to get convictions” and back into the zone of “increasing administrative convenience for prosecutors”.

Thankfully, relative to prior years, the AG appears so far to have dropped her previous suggestion to expand the list of “designated offenses” to an array of financial crimes, down to kiting checks and violating codes of ethics. For the moment, there’s also no sign of her previous unconstitutional proposal to substitute after-the-fact “certificates” for proper warrants signed before the fact by a judge. However, the bill still has serious defects as presented.

Here at Digital Fourth, we believe that if electronic wiretapping warrants are to be legal, they should be restricted to very serious crimes. While philosophically the organized crime requirement seems outdated, in practice it doesn’t seem to affect convictions. What it does do is to impose a high bar on launching an electronic wiretapping investigation, and that high bar is useful in itself. We feel that it would be a waste of police resources to mount electronic wiretaps of peaceful activists, conduct mass surveillance of traffic at phone switching stations, or turn every insulting comment on a schoolkid’s Facebook page into a criminal matter, all of which this bill would allow. Any surveillance that moves away from a particularized target towards generalized suspicion, or that chills people’s freedom of speech, is constitutionally suspect. The AG should accept, just as the federal government should accept, that there are activities that they and we may not like, that cannot realistically be suppressed by the government without violating the Constitution. Legislators thinking of cosponsoring this legislation should likewise be aware of the major problems it presents.

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