• Fourth Amendment Goes Digital

    The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision may have garnered the most press coverage and debate of its recent cases. But before that, the Court handed down another very important decision on privacy rights.

    In Riley v. California, the Court voted 9-0 that police must have a warrant to search a person’s mobile phone. This is significant for two reasons.

    The first is that this could be a turning point in the legal battle over digital privacy rights. Most legal challenges to surveillance and data collection have so far been fruitless. Just this March, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that the controversial NSA programs don’t violate the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure. So a ruling upholding privacy rights, and a unanimous ruling at that, is something of a surprise.

    The second reason this is a big deal is more obvious: it’s a victory for Fourth Amendment rights. And it comes at a very good time.

    This summer Chicago is installing devices in certain areas that will track, among other things, the number of people in the area by scanning their mobile phones for a signal. Proponents of the project, dubbed the “Array of Things,” insist that these won’t actually mine data from phones, and the devices’ findings will also be publicly available for anyone to see, giving the whole thing a certain aura of transparency. But there’s no way around the perception that the city could use it to spy on residents, whether true or not.

    Or consider the Stingray, used by several law enforcement agencies to track cell phones (according to the ACLU, both Illinois and Indiana forces use them). Here’s a very good and detailed overview of how it works, but in short, it can track your location and data from your phone. Dubious, but apparently legal.

    Stingrays have been in use for nearly a decade, before Array of Things, before Edward Snowden and his NSA revelations. However, the technology does not give police the ability to read texts or listen in on calls. Now, in addition to the technological limit, the Riley ruling draws a legal line protecting mobile owners from search and seizure without a warrant.

    The case is likely only the first of many on issues related to digital privacy, but the importance of what it does and what it may signify should not be understated.

  • Search and seizure heads to IN Supreme Court

    The Indiana Supreme Court decided to hear a notable case last week. Unlike the case I already discussed in my last post, this one’s outcome is sure to have further-reaching effects than just our corner of the state.

    Garcia v. State centers on Antonio Garcia, who was pulled over and arrested on the misdemeanor charge of driving without a license in 2012. While being searched during his arrest, the police found a small container, which they opened to find a hydrocodone/acetaminophen pill. This painkiller is considered a controlled substance, possession of which without a prescription is a felony.

    Garcia testified that he had found the pill among a recently deceased family member’s effects, and carried it with him so his child wouldn’t find it. Though he was able to produce prescription records indicating the family member did, in fact, have a prescription for the drug, he was still convicted of felony possession.

    The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned that conviction on the grounds that it violated the Indiana Constitution’s stipulation against search and seizure. Specifically, the ruling stated that the container aroused no reasonable suspicion or threat to the arresting officers, therefore searching it violated Garcia’s Constitutional rights.

    The Indiana Supreme Court will have the final say, though a decision probably won’t come until next year.

    Before trying to tie this case in to high-profile police and civil liberties controversies of recent years, one should take a closer look at the facts. While Garcia contends that regular search and seizure protocol went too far, he isn’t contesting his misdemeanor charge or alleging grave officer misconduct. The arresting officers also testified that Garcia was cooperative. And in fairness to the police, similar medicine containers frequently are used as containers for illegal drugs. So this case occupies a grey area.

    Personally, I’m leaning toward the side of Garcia, not due to any personal biases, but because if I have to choose a side, I always choose the one of civil liberties.