Archive for the ‘Fourth Amendment’ Category

Standing to Sue the NSA?

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, Wikimedia’s lawsuit against the NSA got thrown out. Wikimedia (and the ACLU, NACDL, Amnesty International, and many more) claimed the NSA was violating everyone’s rights with its “upstream” surveillance of internet communications. The court dismissed the case because nobody could prove that they had “standing” to bring the case in the first place. The plaintiffs failed to establish that the NSA had actually intercepted any actual communications. They relied on statistics — there are gazillions of communications that go over the wires being monitored, so there must have been improper interceptions. The court said “must have been” isn’t good enough, there isn’t standing, good day.

This isn’t the first time that’s happened. A few weeks before that, a Pennsylvania divorce lawyer had his case against the NSA shot down for the same reason — he couldn’t prove that he himself had been harmed, because he couldn’t show that any of his communications had actually been intercepted. So no standing, case dismissed.

These cases rely on the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Clapper v. Amnesty International, which held that merely “possible” injury isn’t enough to assert standing in a case like this. You need to show that the injury is real, and either actually happened or is truly imminent. Even if there’s a reasonably good chance that your communications were intercepted, that’s not good enough. There’s no res ipsa loquitur when it comes to standing here.

Of course, that’s nonsense, because the whole doctrine of res ipsa is basically “yeah, the plaintiff can’t prove you harmed him, but come on! It’s pretty obvious you must have.” It’s rebuttable, but the doctrine at least lets the plaintiff into the courthouse. [Yes I know Fourth Amendment and First Amendment jurisprudence aren’t exactly the same as that of negligence in Torts, but come on.]

It doesn’t matter, though, because this is what the Supreme Court always does in cases like this. None of this is a surprise to anyone.

In Clapper, the appellants wanted the Court to say  §1881a of FISA is unconstitutional, as is the NSA’s surveillance of communications. The Supreme Court did not want to deal with these issues. This “no standing” decision is their way of saying that.

An important fact about the Supreme Court is that it doesn’t have to take every case that comes its way. It gets to pick and choose, for the most part. They exercise this discretion, for the most part, based on purely nonpolitical considerations such as how busy they are. Or because a given case isn’t the right one to make a ruling with, and they’re waiting for a better one to come along. (Sometimes they do appear to cross the line with their discretion, see Bush v. Gore, and when that happens the entire authority of the Court gets called into question. A lesson that has to get re-learned every now and then.)

Prudence is another consideration that the Court takes into account when accepting or rejecting a case. In other words, “we’d better not get involved in this issue.”

If you look back at all the times the Court has skirted an issue by saying a party had no standing, it’s hard to find a definition of standing that reconciles them all. I’ll go so far as to say that they are irreconcilable. There is no consistent theory that explains them all. Except, that is, the consideration of Prudence. When you take into consideration the Court’s desire to not go sticking its nose in a sensitive matter, everything becomes clear.

It’s been the Court’s practice to do this for a long time, now. This very fact was taught in the very first class of my first year of law school, back in 1993, and it was already an old habit long before then. So it cannot have come as a surprise to anyone. I’ll bet you a dollar that even if you did find proof that your personal communications had been intercepted — and after Snowden and all the other post-Clapper revelations, it’s easier to meet some of the Court’s conditions — they’d still find a way to say you lacked standing. They’ve left themselves plenty of wiggle room, there.

That doesn’t mean you don’t keep trying! Just don’t be surprised if they keep refusing to get to the merits. They don’t want any part of it.

Q&A Roundup Part 3

Friday, September 18th, 2015

Hey Nathan,

I’m ≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡, an AI MSc student. Your comic is great! : ) I have some questions.
(1) The Good Wife, a show about lawyers, makes law knowledge seem a bit like a weapon to be used for attack and defence to help one navigate the civilized world. To what extent is this true? That is, what exactly is the utility of law knowledge without a license to practice it? Does being the best unlicensed lawyer in the universe turn you into a superhero or just an interesting dude?
(2) Suppose hypothetically that the AI apocalypse will be upon us in 5-20 years. Will laws about AI rights be passed? Will the development of AI systems in uncontrolled environments become illegal in an effort to prevent it?
(3) Along similar lines, it might, in the not too distant future, be trivial to surveil everything, everywhere, all the time. How does the legal system address this? How do you see the law evolving as these waves of technology hit us?

Thanks for writing, ≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡! Each of your questions could make for a long article in a law review, but here are some quick off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts:

1) I haven’t seen the show, but there are certainly people out there who try to use knowledge of law (and rules in general) as a tool to get their way. Sometimes it’s to prevent other people from doing something, sometimes it’s to make other people do something, and sometimes it’s to get money from people. Obstruction, compulsion, and extortion. They’re rare, in my experience, but they do exist.
If you think of life in a given society as a game, then the law is simply the rulebook for playing that game. And it can be hard to play the game if you don’t have at least a basic understanding of the rules (which is what I’m trying to give folks with my comic). The better you understand the rules that apply to you, the better you’ll be able to play the game, the less likely another player will be able to cheat you, and the better your understanding of the game itself. Similarly, the better you understand the law that applies to you, the better you’ll be able to make informed decisions, protect yourself from those who would use law as a weapon, and the deeper your understanding of our society and culture. The utility of law knowledge is the ability to navigate life.
The reason why lawyers exist, and why there is such a demand for them, is because we keep adding to the rulebook and rewriting it and making it ever more complex and arcane. Nobody can know all of it, so we hire people who understand the bit that affects us right now, and pay them for advice and to make decisions on our behalf. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t bother learning at least the basics of law, and just leave it all up to the lawyers. That would be like downloading a bot to play the game for you. And not even knowing which kind of bot to get.
I don’t think a fundamental knowledge of the law makes one either a superhero or extra interesting. I think it’s a basic prerequisite for functioning in any society.
2) The less we understand something, the more we fear it. The more we fear something, the more we try to prevent it. Often, this means passing laws to prohibit something when we don’t understand what we’re prohibiting. Laws like that are typically both overbroad, punishing those it wasn’t aiming at, and ineffective against the intended target.
Most people have even less understanding of technology than they do of law. Politicians and regulators are no different. I’d expect all kinds of laws trying to regulate and prohibit scary tech, and I’d expect blameless people to be prosecuted and punished simply because they’re easy to catch and easy to convict according to poorly-thought-out laws, and I’d expect people who want to develop the tech to find ways of doing so regardless.
In other words, we’ll do what we always do.
3) The concern with surveillance is mostly with how the government can do it. For individuals and businesses, the main concern is not breaking laws against wiretapping – recording someone’s voice without their knowledge. This is why many security video cameras don’t have a microphone.
When it comes to the government, all these extra cameras everywhere are a potential source of evidence that the government could subpoena – and because it wasn’t the government taking the videos, there’d be no issue about whether the government violated your rights when the video was taken. Free evidence that won’t be suppressed. The expense would be in tracking down useful videos and subpoenaing them before they’ve been deleted.
But what I think you’re getting at is whether there may be an erosion of our “expectation of privacy” – and therefore our protections against government surveillance – as surveillance in general becomes more ubiquitous and technologically advanced. I think that’s extremely likely. After all, if a reasonable person would have to expect that he or his stuff could be detected by any private individual or entity, then how can it be reasonable to prohibit the police from detecting it? Not just security video and things people capture with their cell phones, but also code that tracks behavior online, and other details yet to be imagined.
As surveillance technology advances and its use gets more ubiquitous, we’ll have two options: (a) prohibit people from using or making advanced devices; severely restrict public photography and video recording; and restrict the production and use of software that can analyze it; or (b) let the government see what any private person or organization could see. The first option is impractical, unworkable, and in my opinion morally wrong. So we’re probably going to have to go with the second. Our expectation of privacy is going to erode, and the government will be allowed to see more and more of what we do.
I’d be interested to hear what other people think about these questions. All the best!

A Fundamental Disconnect

Friday, May 1st, 2015

Your smartphone has a lot of private stuff on it. Passwords, photos, messages, files. You want to keep it private. So it’s a good thing that companies are building better encryption into their phones, right?

Not according to law enforcement. They complain a lot about encryption. Encryption is pretty good, these days, which means law enforcement can’t easily get stuff that’s encrypted. It used to be you have to be kinda tech-savvy yourself to encrypt your stuff. But now phones are encrypting your stuff by default. Cops, prosecutors, spies, and regulators want those passwords, photos, messages, files. And now they can’t get them. They’re frustrated. Like a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum, telling her dad to make Willy Wonka give her what she wants, they shout at lawmakers to make the nasty companies give them access. Maybe they don’t go “if you loved me, you would” (though they might), but echoing the rallying cry of governmental overreach everywhere, they scream “think of the children!”

Seriously, that’s their argument. Eric Holder, our recently-departed Attorney General, cried “think of the children!” last autumn at the Global Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse Online conference. Law enforcement can do its job while “adequately protecting” your privacy (whatever he thinks that means), he said — but “when a child is in danger, law enforcement needs to be able to take every legally available step to quickly find and protect the child and to stop those that abuse children. It is worrisome to see companies thwarting our ability to do so.”


Damn those evil, evil companies for helping child abusers!

It’s a common refrain. Just the other day, a Massachusetts district attorney testified before Congress that “when unaccountable corporate interests place crucial evidence beyond the legitimate reach of our courts, they are in fact placing those who rape, defraud, assault and even kill in a position of profound advantage over victims and society.”

Damn those evil, evil corporations!

What law enforcement needs, they say, is a “backdoor” — they demand and insist that tech companies build flaws into their encryption, so that government can get those secret files and catch bad guys. We can trust law enforcement to only use those encryption flaws for a good cause. And it’s not like any of those bad guys will be able to use those flaws to commit more crimes.


Of course this is pure nonsense. And fortunately there was at least one congressman present on Wednesday who knows it.

California Rep. Ted Liu called B.S., in no uncertain terms. Tech companies aren’t doing this to help criminals, he said, but to protect their customers. “Because the public is demanding it.” And by the way, the public is demanding it because it “does not want an out-of-control surveillance state.” That’s right, the public is demanding protection from the government.

Which is what the Fourth Amendment’s all about, after all. Protecting our privacy from government intrusion.

This may seem obvious to you. That you have basic privacy interests in your stuff. And just because the government wants to see it, that doesn’t mean they should be able to.

But law enforcement doesn’t see it that way. Nope. Cops and prosecutors and spies and regulators honestly believe they are entitled to it. If evidence of a crime exists, they honest to God think there oughta be a way for them to get it.

That’s the fundamental disconnect that’s driving this debate. Because they’re wrong.


Let’s set aside the colossally stupid assumption that only good guys will be able to exploit backdoors to encryption. But only after noting that this alone demonstrates an enormous lack of understanding about how data tech works. That the folks who are supposed to be protecting us from malicious hackers want to give those very crooks a way to steal our private data, our bank accounts, our private photos — this alone should be alarming as hell.

Who’s accusing whom of aiding and abetting the bad guys?

But let’s set that aside. Let’s focus on that disconnect. That fundamental misunderstanding of the role of law enforcement, of the Constitution they’re sworn to uphold, and what law enforcement is “entitled” to.


Here’s the deal: Law enforcement isn’t entitled to a damn thing.

Yes, we’d love for them to be able to get all the evidence they lawfully can. Absolutely. If there’s evidence of a crime, and the government can find it without violating anyone’s rights, then by all means the government should do so. Society wants criminals to be punished for their crimes, and that can’t happen without evidence to prove that they did it.

Society wants that. But it demands that government not violate our rights in the process. There’s nothing in the Constitution granting law enforcement the right to collect evidence. But there’s plenty in there specifically protecting individuals from the government, specifically limiting what the government can do when it tries to gather evidence. Why? Because although catching and punishing the bad guys would be nice, it’s not as important to us as making sure the government doesn’t use its awesome power to do bad things to us.

We’ve balanced it nicely with our Exclusionary Rule. If law enforcement crosses the line, then they’re not allowed to use evidence they got by crossing that line. But they can still use the other stuff they got lawfully. This encourages them to gather all they lawfully can, without any fear of repercussions, and only takes away stuff they shouldn’t have had in the first place. And our courts bend over backward to say evidence was lawfully gathered.

But not everything can be lawfully gathered. It just can’t. Just because it exists, that doesn’t mean the government can see it.

“But private actors can see it!” you hear law enforcement cry. “Where’s the justice in a system that prevents the police from seeing stuff a civilian or a company could see?”

One: You are also civilians. No matter how much you arm yourselves with military gear and dress up like soldiers, police are not the military. You’re us. We’re not “them.”

Two: As Representative Ted Liu pointed out in a strong rebuke to the D.A. at that hearing, “here’s the difference: Apple and Google don’t have coercive power. District attorneys do, the FBI does, the NSA does.”

It’s simple. Private actors aren’t restricted by the Fourth Amendment, because private actors aren’t the government. They can’t throw you in jail. Maybe they can sue you or ding your credit rating, but the government can destroy your life and even take it away. The Constitution tries very hard to limit what the government can do with all that power. And as Rep. Liu concluded, “it’s very simple to draw a privacy balance when it comes to law enforcement and privacy: just follow the damn Constitution.”

So no. You can’t whine and cry that you’re not allowed to see things the rest of us can see. We need to be protected from you. Our founding fathers knew it. The Constitution you’re sworn to uphold exists to protect us from you. From you, not from Google.


“But what about the children!”

What about them?

“What about a kid who’s in danger of being horribly abused by a bad guy?”

And you have his phone, but not… him?

“Didn’t you hear us? A kid could have been horribly abused!”

That would be sickening and awful, and we’d love it if you caught the guy who did it.

“Well, what if the evidence we need to prove the bad guy did it is encrypted on his phone?”

And you’d know this… without having other evidence?

“For the sake of argument, yes! My God, we won’t be able to punish the man who made this child suffer!”

And this is different from every other case where you can’t find the evidence you need… how?

“We know it exists! Probably!”

And this is different from any other case where you can’t find the evidence you need… how?

“But tech companies can design their products so we can find the evidence! Government should compel them to do that!”

Well, how about private safes and security vaults, should those manufacturers be forced to design inherent flaws so cops can open them easily?

“That’s a great idea! Yes!”

Wait, I didn’t-

“Yes! And lawyers and doctors and priests — we should be able to force them to tell us what the suspect told them! And…”

You’re starting to scare me. This is the kind of government overreach we’re afraid of. Don’t you get it?

“But think of the children!”

SCOTUS makes a mistake anybody would have made. So it’s okay, right?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

The Fourth Amendment established one of our most important protections against government power: if the police search you or your stuff for evidence, their search must be ‘reasonable’; and if they do get a warrant then it has to be specific, and they’ll need probable cause. In writing, it couldn’t be more straightforward.

In practice, however, its meaning is anything but. Over the years, the courts have dramatically muddied the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Not as badly as the Fifth, perhaps, but badly enough to severely erode the Fourth’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The courts certainly weren’t trying to undermine the Amendment (well, not most of the time, anyway). It’s been a long series of discrete errors, gradually chipping away at what counts as an “unreasonable” search, and what can be done about it. And so legal types have long complained that the courts have been “eroding” our Fourth Amendment protections.

Sometimes this happens because the legally correct outcome sometimes seems so… wrong. What judge wants to let some vile nasty inhuman threat to society go free, on a mere “technicality?” Very often, this sense of “doing the right thing” in fact leads judges to make errors in law — waving away the protections this one bad guy had, and thereby creating a precedent that erases everyone else’s. It’s the “hard cases make bad law” principle, and it’s very real.

Sometimes this erosion happens because the courts simply don’t understand the law they themselves have created! Even the Supreme Court does this. It happens more often than you might think.

And yesterday, the Supreme court did it again.


The case is Heien v. North Carolina, and in a nutshell the Supremes said this: If a police officer mistakenly thinks something you’re doing is against the law, and if it’s a mistake any reasonable person would have made, then it’s okay if he stops you to investigate. The Court broadened the definition of “reasonable suspicion” so that now an officer can be wrong about what your were doing, and whether it was even illegal in the first place, and he’ll still be allowed to stop and frisk you. Based on the justices’ own understanding of the law, it’s okay, they say.

Actually, it’s not okay. The Supremes themselves were mistaken about the law.

Was it a “reasonable” mistake?


It looks like, at the heart of this mistake, we’ll find the “Exclusionary Rule.” This is law invented by the courts, specifically for the purpose of enforcing the Fourth Amendment. If you’re charged with a crime, and the police have evidence they unlawfully seized from you, your only protection is the Exclusionary Rule: if the police got evidence by violating your rights, then that evidence cannot be used against you at trial. The officers are not themselves penalized in any way; all we do is take away the evidence that they shouldn’t have had in the first place.

This is a very civilized rule, if you think about it. In any situation, there’s a line the police cannot cross. Every situation is different, and the rules aren’t always clear. If the police themselves might be punished for inadvertently crossing that line, then they’re going to avoid going anywhere near it. Society would lose a lot of evidence that the police could have lawfully obtained. Guilty people whom society really wants to punish will get away with it. That’s bad. A rule meant to deter police conduct is not what we want. Instead, however, the Exclusionary Rule lets police go right up to the line, without fear of repercussion if they mistakenly cross it. All the rule does is take away the evidence they get from crossing the line if that happens. It merely excludes what they shouldn’t have had anyway. The rule has zero deterrent effect on police personally, and only serves as an incentive to collect evidence lawfully if they want to ensure its use at trial. It’s really quite elegant: the lawful evidence is maximized, the unlawful evidence is eliminated. What more could society want?

The problem comes when judges are mistaken about the law. When they say the Exclusionary Rule is all about deterrence. Which is precisely what the Rule isn’t about. They get the whole purpose of the Rule wrong, and then they base the rest of their reasoning off of that wrong premise. And they reach a result that’s not only wrong, but inconsistent, confusing, overcomplicated, and unjust. There’s some satisfaction in the guilty being punished, but in so doing they’ve made things worse for everyone else.

So say the police got a bad warrant, but they didn’t know it was bad. Acting in good faith, they seize evidence the Fourth Amendment absolutely forbids them from having. But they didn’t know it was bad. They sincerely and reasonably thought it was good. There’s no way to deter people against being reasonably mistaken. You just can’t. So if you think the Exclusionary Rule is about deterrence, you’ll have to conclude that it’s literally pointless if the police were acting in good faith. And if you’re a court, you carve out an exception to the Fourth Amendment — a “Good Faith” exception –and our protections are eroded just a little bit more.

It happens all the time, and it happened yesterday.


As one might expect when a court is arguing from a mistaken premise, the Court’s justification was convoluted and strange. In an area where one would expect the law to be fairly current and on point, the Supreme Court had to reach way back to its earliest cases, especially about international-border customs seizures as opposed to Fourth Amendment seizures, to find something to justify itself. You can read the case itself here, and Scotusblog has a typically excellent analysis here.

The legal issue is whether “reasonable suspicion” is still “reasonable” if the police officer is wrong on the law. “Reasonable suspicion” itself is about the police officer’s assessment of the facts on the ground, whether he’s seeing someone casing a bank to rob it, or someone who’s just pacing back and forth in front of it lost in thought. Police officers aren’t mind readers, and so their suspicion can be reasonable even if their conclusion turns out to be wrong. The whole point of “reasonable suspicion” is to allow the police to investigate whether their suspicion is correct.

It’s never been about whether the officer’s understanding of the law was correct. We want to let the officer stop you to investigate whether his assessment of the facts was correct. An officer doesn’t need to stop you to investigate whether his understanding of the law is correct. It doesn’t even make sense to say reasonable suspicion is reasonable if the officer was wrong on the law.

The Court’s ruling essentially broadens the definition of reasonable suspicion so that an officer can be wrong about what your were doing, and whether it was even illegal in the first place, and he’s still allowed to stop and frisk you.

Though it didn’t say so explicitly, the Court was essentially making the same “good faith” mistake all over again. A police officer is mistaken on the law. Not because he didn’t study it carefully, or because he was sloppy — no, it’s an error that any reasonable person would have made. Anyone would have thought you were breaking the law, despite the fact that what you were doing was technically legal. The officer’s mistaken belief wasn’t his fault. It was objectively reasonable. And there’s no way you can deter people from being reasonably mistaken. You just can’t. And so if the Exclusionary Rule is about deterring police conduct, it’s simply pointless to apply it here. So we have to carve out an exception — a “Reasonably Mistaken” exception — and our protections are eroded just a little bit more.

It would be a mistake to argue that the Court was wrong because its reasoning was convoluted and it relied on irrelevant case law, however. That’s not the problem with the decision. It’s only an outcome, a symptom, of the underlying error. Once again, they presumed that the Exclusionary Rule is something it categorically is not. That’s their error. And our cherished Fourth Amendment probably means just a little bit less now, as a result.


So they were mistaken on the law. But it’s a mistake lots of judges, even those on the Supreme Court, have made before. It’s an “objectively reasonable” mistake.

But that doesn’t make it okay.

Let’s Make a New Law!

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Any moderately well-informed person these days is aware of the shocking injustices that happen whenever criminal laws get written by people who don’t really understand what criminal law is, or how it works. (Brilliant summary here.) They tend to create crimes that are ill-defined, overbroad, and usually an overreaction to the perceived harm. The results can be pretty bad.

How much more cause for concern, then, when the proposed crime violates not only the fundamental principles of criminal jurisprudence, but cherished individual rights that have nothing to do with crime?

And how much more cause for concern, then, when those who catch potential problems are not engaged in thoughtful debate, but are instead shouted down and accused of malicious and reprehensible conduct?

It looks like that’s what’s been going on recently in an ongoing debate over proposed “Revenge Porn” legislation that’s floating around out there. At first the shenanigans were amusing to watch, but lately it’s turned into a distressing train wreck online. A law has been proposed in reaction to something with a lot of emotional pull, thoughtful people have voiced concerns that it may be a bad law, and its proponents have responded less with reasoned debate than with emotional backlash. Those who disagree are shouted down as stalkers and assholes; their comments are deleted so that others may not see them.

Ignoring whether either side is right or wrong, what a terrible blow this has been to the credibility of the law’s proponents. Think how insecure they must be in their own assertions to react so defensively. How much confidence can than inspire in the rest of us?


“Revenge Porn” is pretty much what it sounds like. You’re in a relationship with someone, they let you have some nude pix, then there’s a breakup and you feel bitter and to get back at them you post their nudes online for the world to see. It’s a nasty, cruel thing to do. It’s not hard to imagine society thinking the practice to be so bad that it deserves to be punished. It’s easy, in other words, to see Revenge Porn as something that might be criminalized.

Some law professors have been pushing a model statute that would criminalize the practice. So far, no big deal. This is something that law professors are expected to do.

None appear to be professors or practitioners of criminal law, though. That’s not encouraging. Those reviewing the language will therefore probably want to keep an extra-sharp lookout for things like imprecise (or missing) mens rea, over-inclusive definitions, and conflated or confused concepts, etc. Nothing personal, just a normal precaution. You get this stuff all the time.

An extra wrinkle comes from the fact that posting a nude picture of your ex counts as “speech” for First Amendment purposes. And the First Amendment doesn’t let the government criminalize speech, except in very tightly controlled circumstances. Even the most awful, painful, hurtful and distressing speech (such as that of the Westboro Baptist “Church”) is not something that gets criminalized in this country.


This is a criminal law blog, not a First Amendment forum, and so it’d be somewhat off-topic to get into whether or not Revenge Porn is something that can be criminalized without running afoul of Freedom of Speech. But it is pertinent to note that the professors’ interpretation of the 1st Amendment here is not universal — and it is also relevant to examine how they have reacted to the ensuing disagreement.

To be fair, the law’s proponents are from academia, where disagreement (often) = bullying and criticism (sometimes) = hate speech. Where speech is generally not very well protected, in the first place. Where debate can be frowned upon and contrary points of view shouted down, removed from newspaper bins, at times even persecuted and hounded out. You ain’t seen petty vindictiveness until you’ve seen someone challenge the orthodoxy. You don’t get this from the better professoriate, of course — there are plenty of wonderful academics who welcome healthy debate, the chance to make their case or (as the case may be) get a new point of view. But there are plenty of others who prefer to point to their credentials and their peer-acceptance as proof of their correctness, and who get the most defensive when challenged.

You can usually tell which kind of academic you’re dealing with based on how they react to a contrary position. The ones who are pushing the Revenge Porn law, sadly, seem to be falling into the lesser camp so far. This is not good for their credibility.

So to the extent that First Amendment practitioners are in dispute with these particular academics, one might be inclined to conclude that the practitioners could perhaps be more likely to be correct.


But again, this is a criminal law blog. So how does the law look from the perspective of our criminal jurisprudence?

Not… not so great.

Here’s what the model statute says:

Whoever intentionally discloses a photograph, film, videotape, recording, or any other reproduction of the image of another person whose intimate parts are exposed or who is engaged in an act of sexual contact without that person’s consent, under circumstances in which the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, commits a crime. A person who has consented to the capture or possession of an image within the context of a private or confidential relationship retains a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to disclosure beyond that relationship.

(a) Definitions: For the purposes of this section,
1) “disclose” means sell, manufacture, give, provide, lend, trade, mail, deliver, transfer, publish, distribute, circulate, disseminate, present, exhibit, advertise or offer.
2) “intimate parts” means the naked genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or female adult nipple of the person.
3) “sexual contact” means sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex.

(b) Exceptions:
1) This section shall not apply to lawful and common practices of law enforcement, the reporting of unlawful conduct, or legal proceedings.
2) This section shall not apply to situations involving voluntary exposure in public or commercial settings.


Holy cannoli, where to begin…?

The first problem is one of good old mens rea: It criminalizes disclosing the image without the subject’s consent, regardless of whether the actor knew about it one way or the other, or meant to do so without consent. It criminalizes the act where the subject had a reasonable expectation of privacy, regardless of whether the actor knew or had any reason to know it. The only mens rea here is whether the image was disclosed intentionally.

It’s a strict liability crime. Whenever you see that, huge red flags should be popping up in your head screaming “INJUSTICE AHEAD!” Sure it doesn’t criminalize accidentally dropping a photo out of your wallet, but it does criminalize showing it to people with the mistaken belief that your wife was cool with it — or without the knowledge that she had since changed her mind.

The second problem is one of conflated concepts. “Reasonable expectation of privacy” is a concept of Fourth Amendment law — of procedural rights, not of criminal liability. It is a term of art that has been defined in a fairly convoluted fashion over the years in such a way that the average layman couldn’t give you an accurate definition of the phrase if his life depended on it. His liberty would depend on it, here. The authors probably don’t mean for this phrase to have the meaning & baggage it carries in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. They just think it sounds good. And so there is inherent confusion in the statutory language. It is not clear what is actually meant here. And where there is vagueness in criminal law, where there is room for interpretation, there is room for cops and prosecutors to screw over the regular Joe. And if you don’t think that happens, you’re not getting out enough. When you see conflated concepts and room for interpretation, those red flags ought to be screaming at you even louder.

The third problem is one of unclear writing. Seriously, what do the “consent” and “reasonable expectation of privacy” clauses modify? Does this refer to images that are disclosed without consent, or taken without consent? Does this refer to images that were disclosed under circumstances where someone had an expectation of privacy, or taken under such circumstances? Is it criminalizing pictures of sexual acts that were nonconsensual? What about images that were taken by someone else, and then given to you by your ex? What about images that someone else forwarded to you, or you found online, and had no way of knowing whether they were consensually/privately taken or disclosed (whichever verb applies)? It can be read all of these different ways.

There is literally no way of knowing for sure what conduct is criminalized here. As written, it outlaws all kinds of behavior its authors probably didn’t mean to punish. It is overbroad as hell. You hear those red flags? Since when do flags scream? These are. Get some earplugs.

Strictly from a criminal perspective, this is a god-awful statute. It’s another one of those “think of the children” “take back the night” “let’s name a statute after the victim” kinds of legislation that pave an eight-lane superhighway to hell with their good intentions.


You want a statute that works? (Again, ignoring any First Amendment concerns.) Here’s one I banged out in court this morning while waiting for a case to be called. Zero research or deep thought went into it:



(A) “Private Sexual Image” = any media containing:

(i) an image taken in a non-public place, and in a non-commercial setting…

(ii) of a living person whose identity is readily ascertained from the contents of the image…

(iii) and depicting that person’s unclothed genitalia, buttocks, or female breasts, or depicting that person engaged in sexual intercourse, oral sex, manual-genital contact, or other such sexual behavior…

(iv) and which has not previously been “distributed” as that word is defined herein.


(B) “Distribute” = make publicly available by any means, including displaying in public or in a publicly-accessible medium, sharing via any communication or peer-to-peer arrangement, and any other method that makes a duplicate of the image available to others. Excluded are private acts of showing the image, without duplication or transmission, to individuals or small groups of people.



Any person who, with the intent to harass, shame, or defame another person:

(1) distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of that other person;

(2) when he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, that he does so without the consent of that other person; and

(3) thereby does harass, shame or defame that other person

is guilty of a Fucking Nasty Crime.


Any person who, with the intent to harass, shame, or defame another person:

(1) distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of that other person;

(2) when he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, that he does so without the consent of that other person

is guilty of a Nasty Crime.


Any person who

(1) intentionally distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of another person;

(2) when he knows that, or recklessly disregards whether, he does so without the consent of that other person

is guilty of a Crime.



It shall be an affirmative defense to all of these crimes that, when the image in question was originally taken, it was reasonable to expect that it would later be viewed or possessed by people other than those who were a subject of the image, the person taking the image, and the person accused of distributing the image.

It shall be an affirmative defense to the Fucking Nasty crime that the image in question was transmitted to the accused via electronic or other means whereby the image could be “forwarded” or otherwise duplicated and transmitted to third parties.


There, quick and easy. There’s probably stuff to fix in there, as well, and again who knows if it’d pass constitutional muster on other grounds, but it’s hardly as overbroad or prone to injustice as the one those professors are promoting.

I bet you can do it even better. You are cordially invited to tear my suggestion apart in the comments, and provide your own language. Have at it!

Q&A Dump

Friday, September 6th, 2013

I’m on the road today, but I wanted to post something. So I’m going to cheat and cut-and-paste some recent Q&A posts from my Tumblr. If you’re looking for a longer read, go check out my comic, which just completed a long section involving how the Fourth Amendment plays out during different kinds of car stops.

From today:

I don’t know all the facts, of course, and I’m not a Florida lawyer, but from what I’ve read it seems to me like the defense doesn’t have a winning argument here. It’s not unethical to make a losing argument, and lawyers often feel obligated to make every conceivable argument rather than lose an issue for appeal, or in the hope that something sticks — but it might be better to preserve your credibility with the court by choosing those arguments that at least have a teeny bit of merit.

“Stand your ground” laws say that, if you’re lawfully where you are, and someone is then and there about to kill or severely injure you, then even if you could have gotten away safely you’re allowed to use deadly force to defend yourself.

The “Bush Doctrine” is an application in international law of a basic principle of self-defense: you don’t have to wait for the other guy to hit you first before you defend yourself from the coming blow.

From what I understand of the Woodward case, he felt intimidated by these people, but was not in any immediate danger. Nobody was coming at him. Nobody was presently any threat to him.

Instead, he snuck up on a group of people at a barbecue, crawling on his belly to avoid detection. Then he fired a mess of rounds at them, hitting three and killing two. I don’t know what kind of weapon he had, but if the reported numbers of rounds are accurate, then he must have stopped to reload a few times.

This was not self-defense, because he was not in any actual danger at the time. At best, he was defending against some imagined possible future attack that might never have come. I get that he felt terribly harassed, but that’s not the same thing as an actual imminent attack. A hypothetical future attack is not an imminent one.

It was not stand your ground, because first of all he probably wasn’t lawfully there but was trespassing with intent to commit murder; and second of all because he wasn’t reacting to an attack.

The “Bush Doctrine” is just silly to cite, when there are plenty of self-defense cases to cite involving striking the first blow. But even there, the whole point is you’re about to get hit, and you’re defending yourself by making sure that blow doesn’t land on you.

From what I read, it looks like nothing less than cold-blooded premeditated murder, perhaps under great stress from a history of harassment, but in no way justified by it. Very similar to the “battered wife” scenario in my comic, actually.


Just to make this long answer even longer, here are the playground rules I’ve drilled into my kids since they started school:

1. No matter how angry you get at someone, you’re not allowed to hit them.

2. If someone else is about to hurt you for real, first try to get away.

3. If you can’t get away, try to get a grownup to help you.

4. If you can’t get help, then I want you to hit first, I want you to hit hard, and you’re not allowed to stop hitting them until they can’t hit you any more. Let’s practice some moves.

I guess Woodward’s daddy never taught him that.


From a couple of days ago:

This started out as an offshoot of my law blog, which has a similar disclaimer. It’s pretty standard for lawyers to state that their legal information isn’t legal advice, and just because you read it that doesn’t make you a client.

We’re all stating the obvious when we do that. (And no amount of disclaimer would help if a lawyer actually did give legal advice.) I imagine every lawyer cringes a bit as he types one out. Nobody in their right mind needs to have this explained.

But not everyone is in their right mind, sadly. You hear stories about how every now and then someone didn’t quite get the concept, which can turn into an unpleasant situation. So lawyers hope their disclaimers deter some of those people — and it’s nice to have something in black and white to point out to them.

It hasn’t happened to me, though. Not yet, anyway.


Or you could just… you know… try not to get arrested in the first place.

Read them, and not get arrested. Yeah. That might be better.

(Thanks, tho!)


And from a couple days before that:

Yeah… well… not quite.

18 USC 241 & 242 aren’t really about unlawful search and seizure or other stuff dealt with by the exclusionary rule. They’re about police seriously abusing their power. 241 is about conspiring to injure or threaten or intimidate someone, to hinder their civil rights or to retaliate against exercising their rights. 242 is about abusing their power to actually deprive someone of their civil rights.

And the abuse of power has to be really severe. We’re talking about intentionally making up false evidence, intentional false arrests, sexual assaults, and severely excessive force.

What’s being deterred isn’t merely violating the Fourth or Fifth Amendments, but actual criminal conduct. This goes beyond even a civil rights lawsuit. These are not charges that you could bring yourself. They’d have to be filed by a prosecutor.

For a non-federal example of how states deal with it, here’s a story about a Mississippi sheriff who just got indicted the other day for similar conduct.



That’s really my purpose here — to dispel all the crazy myths and misinformation that are so prevalent out there, and present the straight facts in a format that’s easy for any high school student or adult to understand.

Not that I want anyone to think they have to accept how things really are. Maybe we ought to do some things differently. I like to think I’m helping people at least make informed arguments one way or the other (and I’ll be honest: I get a real thrill whenever I see people link to the comic in their online debates).

And I love getting messages like this. Totally makes my day. Thanks again!


(Sounds like your kid has a great parent, by the way.)

Is Ray Kelly a Complete Idiot?

Monday, August 19th, 2013

As we all know, Judge Scheindlin ruled that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program was unconstitutional. This should have come as no surprise.

Our Fourth Amendment law forbids a police officer from stopping you without first having reasonable suspicion to believe that you are up to no good. Police officers were stopping people without any reason to believe they might be up to anything. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

Once you’ve been stopped, Fourth Amendment law forbids a police officer from frisking you without first having reasonable suspicion to believe that you are armed and dangerous. Police officers were frisking people without any reason to believe they might be armed. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

It is also unconstitutional for the government to single people out for this kind of treatment based on their race. Police officers were stopping and frisking Black and Hispanic people almost exclusively. On purpose. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

These were not the random errors of wayward officers, but institutionalized behavior directed and commanded by the police department. It was a program. That the NYPD has been given an injunction to knock it off should surprise nobody.

And yet Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has done nothing but act shocked and offended ever since.

Kelly made the rounds of TV news shows yesterday, angrily asserting Judge Scheindlin doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and claiming that this ruling is going to make violent crime go up. He argued firmly that the stop-and-frisk program is just good policing. It works. It’s effective. And now the NYPD can’t do it any more. It works. It’s effective. And so they should be allowed to keep doing it.

He firmly believes that, just because something is effective, the police should be allowed to do it.

This is the same guy who’s gunning for Secretary of Homeland Security. You thought you were living in a cyberpunk dystopia now? Just you wait until someone like him is in charge.


Forget whether he’s even correct that this is an effective policing strategy. (I already told you why it isn’t.) Let’s just, for the sake of argument, presume that stop-and-frisk actually worked to keep crime down.

That doesn’t mean the government should be allowed to do it. Effective does not mean constitutional.

The government is a mighty thing, with overwhelming power and force at its disposal. But one of the most beautiful things about America is that our government is constrained. It cannot use its might against you unless the Constitution says it can. There are plenty of things it might like to do, but it isn’t allowed to. (People being people, government folks will try to bend the rules or skirt them or even ignore them. Hoping nobody will notice, hoping nobody will say anything, hoping they’ll get away with it. Very often even believing they’re doing nothing wrong, and believing that in fact they’re doing the right thing. Still, the fact remains that they’re no allowed to do it.)

Of course there is a tradeoff. There’s always a tradeoff. If we gave the government unlimited power to snoop into our homes and search our persons, they would certainly catch a lot more criminals. If we took away the exclusionary rule and rules of evidence, they’d convict more of them, too. Ignore innocents wrongly convicted — let’s presume that the police would be inhumanly perfect about all this. It is a certainty that, without that pesky Bill of Rights, more wrongdoers would get punished, and more severely.

But we have decided that a lot of things are more important than catching and punishing criminals. Privacy is more important. Free will is more important. Fair hearings are more important. We as a society are willing to accept a certain level of crime — even violent and horrific crime — as a consequence of protecting these rights.

And so the government is forbidden from violating those rights, no matter how effective such a violation might be.

Kelly does not get this.

This is not rocket science. This is not obscure ivory-tower theory. This is a basic core principle every rookie police officer should know. Is Ray Kelly a complete idiot, here?


Kelly defends targeting Blacks and Hispanics because statistically, they commit a disproportionate amount of the crime in this city. And statistically, they do. But that doesn’t justify stopping individuals just because they happen to have been born into those groups.

Just as “effective” does not mean “constitutional,” the statistics of a general population don’t give you reason to stop that particular individual over there. His being Black does not give you reasonable suspicion. You need reasonable suspicion to believe that this guy is up to something. Ours is a system of individual justice. You need a reason to suspect this particular person, not a belief about people like him in general.

Again, this is stuff you learn your first week at the Police Academy. It’s pretty basic.

If the statistics showed that people of Italian descent committed a disproportionate amount of bribery, or that Jewish people committed a disproportionate number of frauds, would that give the police reason to target Italian or Jewish people just because of their heritage? Of course not. It would be as absurd as it would be abhorrent.

And yet that’s essentially what Kelly’s saying about the racial discrimination.

Does he not see how blatantly wrong this is?

Is he a complete idiot?


You sort of have to hope he is.

Because if he’s not an idiot, then he knows exactly what he’s saying. He knows exactly why he’s wrong. Not just intellectually wrong, but morally wrong and contrary to everything this country stands for. And he’s still saying it. Hoping to convince you he’s right. Hoping you’ll let him continue to have those powers.

Pray he’s only an idiot.

On the DEA’s Special Operations Division

Monday, August 5th, 2013

It should be clear by now that I’m no apologist for governmental overreach or law enforcement abuses. But after the news broke this morning about the DEA’s Special Operations Division, and everyone has been freaking out about yet another erosion of the Fourth Amendment, I feel like I ought to tone it down just a little bit. I have a little inside info here, because back in my days as a narcotics prosecutor, I dealt with them. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to divulge anything I shouldn’t.)

A lot of international drug trafficking takes place outside our borders, so the idea was to take advantage of intelligence data to make the drug war more effective. You just can’t use the intelligence  data in court. So SOD was formed as a way to make the information known, without compromising criminal investigations.

As reported, what the SOD does is get evidence from sources that can never see the light of day in court — usually from intelligence services here and abroad. Wiretaps conducted without regard to Title III because they’re not intended for criminal prosecution, top secret sources, and the like. If something comes up about some big drug trafficking — not at all uncommon to hear about in the intelligence world — then the SOD hears about it. Then they clue in law enforcement. It’s up to law enforcement to figure out how to gather the evidence legally. SOD’s involvement and its tips are rarely shared with prosecutors, and almost never with the defense or the courts.

So there’s a lot of understandable brouhaha that Obama’s eroding our privacy, the Fourth Amendment has been eroded even further, it’s unfair to the defense, this country’s going to hell in a handbasket, etc. People are concerned that law enforcement is “laundering” its evidence so it can use stuff that should have been inadmissible, and lying to everyone to cover it up.

First of all, this didn’t start on Obama’s watch. It got started under Clinton, back in ’94. And its existence has been fairly common knowledge in criminal law circles ever since. It’s even been reported on before.

Second of all, the whole “evidence laundering” thing isn’t quite accurate.

When I was dealing with them, back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, we in my office only half-jokingly called them “the dark side.” It was well understood that you couldn’t build a case off of their information. We’d never know where their information came from, for one thing. Without a source to put on the stand, the information couldn’t even be a brick in the wall of any case we wanted to construct.

And to be fair, the SOD folks themselves were very clear in their instructions: Their information was not to be used as evidence. It was only to help us figure out what we were looking at in an investigation, and let us know about other things we might want to be looking for. It was all along the lines of “how you gather your evidence is up to you, but you ought to know that this Carlos guy you’re looking at is part of a much larger organization, and his role is… and their shipment chain appears to have nodes here, here, and here… and your subject Gilberto over here is looking for a new local dealer.”

So what would you do? You’d realize Carlos wasn’t the top of the food chain, and start looking at your evidence in a different way, maybe change the focus of your investigation. And you’d pay more attention to traffic going to certain places. And you’d try to get an undercover introduced to Gilberto as his new dealer. You weren’t being spoon-fed evidence, but being clued in on where to look for it and what it might mean.

The Reuters article everyone’s citing quotes former DEA agent Finn Selander as saying “It’s just like laundering money — you work it backwards to make it clean,” in reference to a practice called “parallel construction.” He makes it sound like law enforcement obtained its trial evidence illegally, and then went back and tried to think up a way to make it look admissible. That would indeed be cause for much concern. And you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think that’s something police do on a daily basis.

But that’s not what “parallel construction” means. It means “dammit, I have this evidence that I cannot use. Is there another way to go get this evidence that is lawful? Why yes there is! Let me go do that now.”

So let’s say you know that a blue van with Florida plates XXX-XXXX will be going up I-95 this weekend, loaded with heroin in a variety of clever traps. But you can’t just pull it over because you can’t introduce that information in court for whatever reason. Instead, you follow it in a series of unmarked cars, until it makes a moving violation. Which is very likely to happen, no matter how careful the driver is (it’s practically impossible to travel very far without committing some moving violation or other). You now have a lawful basis to pull the van over. And a dog sniff doesn’t even count as a Fourth Amendment search, so out comes the convenient K-9. And tada! Instant lawful search and seizure, and the original reason why you were following him is not only unnecessary but irrelevant.

It doesn’t matter if the original reason you wanted to pull the van over came from the dark side or from an anonymous tip or from a hunch. It’s a legal stop, and the original reason doesn’t matter. This is a very common scenario in day-to-day law enforcement, and isn’t specific to the SOD.

Or think of this equally very common scenario: Someone inside an organization has given you probable cause to go up on a wire and to arrest a lot of people. But you don’t want that person’s identity to ever come out, or even raise any suspicion that there was ever an inside informant. So you get that guy to introduce an undercover. Who maybe introduces yet another undercover. And you only use information that the undercovers themselves develop to build your probable cause and build your case. The original informant’s identity need never be disclosed.

Those examples are parallel construction. It’s not about going back and laundering your evidence. It’s about going forward to gather it lawfully this time.

I’m not saying the dark side isn’t cause for concern. Law enforcement and intelligence are supposed to be two entirely different things. We have given the government amazing intelligence-gathering powers on the understanding that it won’t be used against our own citizens, and won’t be used for law enforcement. A very good argument can be made that the SOD program subverts that super-important limitation on government power.

But it’s harder to argue that it violates the Fourth Amendment or gets evidence in court that should have been inadmissible.

If you’re gonna complain about it, at least complain for the right reason.

No, that’s not what the Fifth Circuit said.

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

The internet is abuzz over yesterday’s Fifth Circuit decision on cell-site data. And hardly anyone seems to know what they’re talking about, as usual.

It’s to be expected when sources like Wired say “cops can track cellphones without warrants, appeals court rules.” Which is not what the court ruled at all. After all, you can’t expect tech zines to be accurate on the law. And it’s to be expected when tons of people get all upset on sites like Reddit, because they only saw the inaccurate headlines and are now freaking out about something that never happened. But when the usually responsible New York Times jumps in with “warrantless cellphone tracking is upheld,” it might be time to get concerned.

Yes, there is a lot of concern these days with government access of our data. A lot of that concern is legitimate, and a lot is misplaced, but the fact that the conversation is even happening is a wonderful thing. Except the conversation is downright counterproductive when nobody knows what they’re talking about. And such lazy (or deceitful?) reporting isn’t doing anyone any good.

Here’s what the court said, in a nutshell:

1) The government wanted to get historical data of cell sites that were used by certain phones. Not real-time data. Not tracking.

2) Existing law says this is allowed when the government can provide specific and articulable facts that make it reasonable to conclude that the data will be relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.

3) The government did exactly that.

4) The lower court screwed up, and applied the rule for getting real-time data. The lower court needs to do it over again. Period.

All the court did was apply existing law, correctly.

What the ACLU and EFF and others wanted, however, was for the court to break new ground, and create a new legal standard. I am in favor of such things — a court’s not going to do that unless you ask, and I encourage making such arguments at every meaningful opportunity. But this court said it wasn’t going to touch that issue with a ten foot pole. (It did suggest going to Congress, to change the law. Congress passed the statute that enables such requests of phone companies, and right now the statute simply tracks existing Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. But the statute could always impose greater burdens on the government than are required by the Fourth Amendment. The Constitution is a floor, not a ceiling, after all. So why not lobby Congress to amend the relevant statute?)

Or they could, you know, take it up with the Supreme Court and ask them to change their mind on what’s reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The problem, of course, is that the existing rule fits neatly within the general principles of how the Fourth Amendment works.

Basically, the Fourth Amendment comes into play when the government intrudes on something that you would reasonably expect to be private. They’re allowed to do it when they have a warrant based on probable cause to believe they’ll find evidence of a crime or catch a criminal. And they’re also allowed to do it without a warrant if it’s reasonable to let the government do so — when your privacy interests are outweighed by some other concern like public safety.

So the first issue is whether historical cell-site data is something you would reasonably expect to be private. The ACLU and EFF and others say it is. The government says it isn’t. And existing law says that it isn’t. This is the new ground that the court was being asked to break.

Cell site data is not something that you create. The government isn’t going into your phone or your computer to access the data. It’s not yours. Instead, it is a record kept by your phone company. They create the data, and they retain the data.

Cell site data does not contain the contents of your communications. What you’re saying and texting and emailing and posting are not being accessed. It only says what cell tower your phone was using at the time. Which can give a general idea of where your phone was at the time.

Historical cell site data does not tell the government where your phone is right now. It’s not a tracking device. It’s not real time. It just lists the towers your phone was using back then.

This cell site data is created by the business, not by you. And it’s about a transaction which that business engaged in. It’s not just about you. It’s a record of its interaction with your phone. It’s nothing more or less than a routine business record, of the business’s own activity, kept in the ordinary and regular course of business. It’s not about you.

And the government did not compel the business to collect that data.

So when the government goes to the business and says “give us those business records,” it is not so much your privacy that’s being invaded as it is the business’s privacy. The act of getting the data, the act itself, does not require any intrusion into your own privacy. They’re not going into your phone or home or computer to get it.

And the data itself is not something that’s yours to claim as your own private information. You didn’t create it, you didn’t keep it.

But the law does recognize that you do have some expectation of privacy here. Just not anywhere near as much as if you were the one who created or kept the data. So the government has to make some showing that it’s actually relevant to an actual criminal investigation. They just don’t have to show there’s probable cause to believe they’ll get evidence of a crime. It’s a similar standard as for getting a pen register — real-time data of the numbers you’re calling, without overhearing the contents of the communications.

Also, stepping away from your interests for a moment: We don’t want law enforcement* just randomly poking through records for no reason, hoping to chance on evidence of a crime — the Fourth Amendment hates it when that happens. It’s not about your privacy, but everyone’s. So they can’t demand records in bulk. They have to be records of a specific phone, that they have specific reason to believe will be useful. It’s arguable that this consideration is even more important than your privacy interests, when it comes to setting the standard the government has to meet.

In the end, the law just isn’t on the ACLU & EFF’s side right now. They need to change the law, if they want the government to have to jump through the probable cause hoop here. They made a game effort of asking the Fifth Circuit to take the plunge, but the Circuit punted (I love mixing metaphors, don’t you judge me). They can lobby Congress to increase the government’s burden, and whip up public support for it (which is entirely possible), or they can try to get the Supreme Court to reinterpret the Fourth Amendment here (yeah, good luck with that).

But this decision broke no new ground. It did not give law enforcement new powers. It did not undermine the Fourth Amendment.

Please, if you’re going to get up in arms about it, do so for the right reasons. Not because you didn’t understand what happened in the first place. And don’t misrepresent what happened to try to foment misinformed popular outcry.

I’m looking at you, New York Times.

*Not the same as national security or intelligence, by the way, but that’s a whole nother discussion.

Ray Kelly on Stop-and-Frisk: You saved HOW many lives?

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

NYC’s Police Commissioner Ray Kelly wrote a piece for today’s WSJ titled “The NYPD: Guilty of Saving 7,383 Lives” and subtitled “Accusations of racial profiling ignore the fact that violent crime overwhelmingly occurs in minority neighborhoods.” In it, he makes a great case for the fact that his cherished stop-and-frisk program is not effective policing, and may in fact lead to more crime.

That’s not his intent, of course. His purpose is to defend the NYPD’s much-maligned stop-and-frisk program (and also its surveillance of political dissidents). He doesn’t succeed. In fact, he does a great job of discrediting himself right off the bat. Which is a shame, because he makes it too easy to roll your eyes at him, and that would be a mistake. This stuff demands serious discussion.

He starts off with a burst of illogic and bad math, to wit:

(A) During the 11 years Bloomberg’s been mayor, unspecified tens of thousands of weapons have been seized by the police;
(B) During those same 11 years, there were 7,383 fewer murders than in the preceding 11 years [though he cites 13,212 and 5,849 as the figures, so the actual difference would be 7,363];
(C) The NYPD has saved 7,383 lives.

Uh huh. Right.

Well, he IS right that crime is way down. A careful statistician might even observe that crime in this city is way WAY down. And this is a good thing.

But to what extent is it a result of the police seizing all those weapons? (And how many weapons did they seize in the 11 years before Bloomberg? He doesn’t say.) In fact, to what extent is the drop in crime the result of policing policies at all? Most research I’ve read seems to support demographic shifts and maturing community attitudes as its primary causes.

Kelly makes this “we saved lives” point in order to justify the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program. He makes other arguments, too. Taken together, his arguments all boil down to “it works, therefore it’s justified.”

No. Wrong.

Just because something works, that doesn’t make it right. Or even legal. Just think of the atrocities the State could commit if mere effectiveness was all the justification it needed. Better yet, don’t think of them. I don’t want to give you nightmares.

But put that aside for now. Is he even right to claim that it’s working, in the first place?


It is silly to deny that good policing can affect crime rates. When the police are effective — when criminals stand a good chance of being caught and punished — then that effectiveness serves as a deterrent. People who otherwise might have committed a crime are more likely to think twice about it.

Then again, we are talking about violent crime, here. How much violent crime is even capable of being deterred? Most assaults and murders are unplanned, spur-of-the-emotions stuff. The odds of being caught and punished aren’t exactly being weighed. Even an effective police force will have an iffy deterrent effect there, at best.

But that’s not what stop-and-frisk is about. And it’s not really about getting weapons off the streets, either.

Stop-and-frisk is about making the risky people take their risky behavior somewhere else.

The NYPD is doing it because they think it will work. That it has worked. That it is working.

And they are wrong.


First things first: It is (more…)

Hey feds, get off of my cloud (Followup)

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Last month, we posted on the senate hearings on whether the feds need to get a warrant before getting emails and other stuff stored in the cloud.  The Obama administration would rather let the feds continue to get such stuff without bothering to get a warrant, as they now can do under (very outdated) current law.  As we put it:

As the law currently stands, if an email is more than 180 days old, the feds are allowed to snag it without a warrant, under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act.  In yet another bit of Orwellian fractal weirdness, the ECPA was designed to ensure that online communications had just as much privacy protection as anything in the offline world.  (Given the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections in the brick-and-mortar world, a cynic might be tempted to crack that the ECPA has lived up to its expectations.)

And we quoted Sen. Patrick Leahy, who last year argued to drag law enforcement and the Fourth Amendment into the modern era:

Today, ECPA is a law that is often hampered by conflicting privacy standards that create uncertainty and confusion for law enforcement, the business community and American consumers.

For example, the content of a single e-mail could be subject to as many as four different levels of privacy protections under ECPA, depending on where it is stored, and when it is sent. There are also no clear standards under that law for how and under what circumstances the Government can access cell phone, or other mobile location information when investigating crime or national security matters. In addition, the growing popularity of social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, present new privacy challenges that were not envisioned when ECPA was passed.

Simply put, the times have changed, and so ECPA must be updated to keep up with the times.

Well, today Sen. Leahy proposed a new bill that might do just that.  The bill (pdf here) would get rid of that 180-day loophole, and require the feds to get a warrant no matter how old the email or data might be.


Obviously, we’re in favor of that.  But this bill goes farther than that.  If adopted, this bill would also:

  1. Prohibit cloud services from knowingly (more…)

Supremes Adopt and Define New “Police-Created Emergency” Doctrine

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Interesting Fourth Amendment decision from the Supreme Court this morning, in a case which at first glance didn’t seem all that cert-worthy.  The facts are as run-of-the-mill as they come — an undercover buy-and-bust, the dealer ran into a building, arrest team followed in just as one of the doors slammed shut but couldn’t tell which of 2 apartments the guy went into, from the hallway they smelled dank weed burning, the smell was stronger by the apartment on the left, the cops banged on the door and announced themselves, the cops heard stuff being moved around inside and figured it was evidence being destroyed, the cops burst in and found significant amounts of pot and cocaine.

The first time we read the facts in this case, we couldn’t help wondering “seriously, what’s the problem here?”  We’re well aware that the cops’ story might not be entirely truthful, but on the facts as given there just didn’t seem to be grounds for suppression.  The cops are allowed to pursue a suspect into the hallway of an apartment building (here it was a breezeway, arguably even less private).  The cops were entitled to bang on the door that smelled of burning marijuana.  There’s no Fourth Amendment prohibition against the police banging on your door and shouting “police police police.”  On hearing sounds consistent with destruction of evidence, it’s pretty well settled that an exigency now existed.  That’s one of the dozen or so exceptions where society’s interest in something (here, preservation of evidence) trumps the right against warrantless searches.  So seriously, what was the problem?

The problem was that the police arguably created the exigency themselves.  If they hadn’t banged on the door and announced their presence, there wouldn’t have been any evidence-destruction sounds.  Can the police manufacture an exception to the warrant requirement, one that would not have existed otherwise, and then rely on that exception to conduct a warrantless search?

Ah, now it gets interesting.

Writing for an 8-1 majority in Kentucky v. King, Justice Alito neatly described (more…)

What’s the remedy for blatant wiretapping violations by the feds? Finger-wagging, sure. But suppression? No way.

Thursday, April 21st, 2011


Wiretaps are arguably the greatest invasion of privacy that the government can do.  They’re listening in on private conversations, not intended to be overheard by anyone else.  So to get a wiretapping warrant, the government has to do more than for a normal search warrant.  There has to be more than just probable cause that they’re likely to find evidence of a crime.  Only certain crimes count.  There has to be good reason to do a wiretap as opposed to some other less-invasive investigative technique.  Only particular conversations can be sought, over particular phones.  Etc. etc. etc.

Not only is there a heavier burden to meet before a wire can be granted, the government has to comply with some very strict rules as they carry out the eavesdropping.  On that issue of particular conversations, for example, they have to do what they can to minimize the amount of non-relevant or privileged conversations that get listened to.  This is called “minimization.”  When it appears that a call isn’t pertinent (i.e., it isn’t evidence of a crime), or that it’s privileged (as a call with one’s attorney, doctor or spouse), then they have to stop listening and recording.  The call gets “minimized.”

The cops or agents who are monitoring the wire have to do more than just act in good faith.  Their minimization has to be objectively reasonable — the law only cares what an ordinarily reasonable person have thought in the circumstances, not what the cop himself happened to think.  So a properly-run wire is going to have minimization procedures that are spelled out at the beginning of the investigation, in writing, signed by every agent before they get to monitor any calls, with a reference copy there at the monitoring location just in case there are any questions later.  The prosecutor is going to be involved throughout, and it’s really the prosecutor’s responsibility to make sure that everyone knows what they can and cannot do.  It’s also the prosecutor’s job to review all the calls that were intercepted and, among other things, make sure that the cops are minimizing properly.

But what happens if the government doesn’t do that?  What happens if oblivious or malicious agents record and listen to all kinds of personal calls that have nothing to do with the crime they’re investigating?  What happens if a lazy or inexperienced prosecutor fails to nip it in the bud, or if a malicious prosecutor allows it to keep happening?

It’s an important issue these days, because the feds have been doing exactly that.


As we’ve pointed out a few times, the feds have been all gung-ho for doing wires on white-collar stuff these days, but the white-collar teams aren’t exactly the most experienced at doing wiretaps properly.  For one thing, the feds hardly (more…)

Hey, feds, get off of my cloud

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Our jury’s still out, and there’s so much stuff to catch up on.  There’s the 5th Circuit’s denial of Jeff Skilling’s appeal, even though the Supreme Court had struck down the “honest services fraud” charge last summer.  We were so ready to write something about it yesterday, but work intervened, and now we’re not in the mood.  Maybe this weekend.

Instead, we’re all intrigued about the Senate hearings earlier this week on whether federal law enforcement ought to get a warrant before doing any search and seizure out there in the cloud.  Apparently, the Obama administration says the warrant requirement is just too much of a hassle.

The term “cloud computing” covers a lot of things, but for these purposes we’re talking about people storing data not on their own hard drives, but out there somewhere in the ether of the internet.  Of course, “out there somewhere” means “stored on someone else’s servers.”  Which means it’s there for the taking (or destruction) if those remote servers were to be compromised.  And of course, that means it’s out there for the seeing if law enforcement decides to go poking around in the cloud.

As the law currently stands, if an email is more than 180 days old, the feds are allowed to snag it without a warrant, under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act.  In yet another bit of Orwellian fractal weirdness, the ECPA was designed to ensure that online communications had just as much privacy protection as anything in the offline world.  (Given the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections in the brick-and-mortar world, a cynic might be tempted to crack that the ECPA has lived up to its expectations.)

As Vermont senator Patrick Leahy put it last September, when the Senate first starting considering changes to the ECPA, the statute

was a careful, bipartisan law designed in part to protect electronic communications from real-time monitoring or interception by the Government, as emails were being delivered and from searches when these communications were stored electronically. At the time, ECPA was a cutting-edge piece of legislation. But, the many advances in communication technologies since have outpaced the privacy protections that Congress put in place.

Today, ECPA is a law that is often hampered by conflicting privacy standards that create uncertainty and confusion for law enforcement, the business community and American consumers.

For example, the content of a single e-mail could be subject to as many as four different levels of privacy protections under ECPA, depending on where it is stored, and when it is sent. There are also no clear standards under that law for how and under what circumstances the Government can access cell phone, or other mobile location information when investigating crime or national security matters. In addition, the growing popularity of social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, present new privacy challenges that were not envisioned when ECPA was passed.

Simply put, the times have changed, and so ECPA must be updated to keep up with the times

Think of it this way:  You’re storing your emails on a third party’s servers.  Isn’t there some lessening of your privacy expectations in that situation?  And on top of that, until maybe six or seven years ago, it wasn’t that outrageous to deem emails left on a third party’s servers for more than six months — instead of storing them to one’s own hard drive or local server for preservation — to be “abandoned.”  AOL users lost their emails after just a month or so.  If you didn’t actively save it to your hard drive, you didn’t want it.  (Forget, of course, the user’s reasonable expectation that the email would no longer exist in the first place.  Do not waste brain cells wondering whether one can abandon something that one believes to have already been destroyed.)

The point is, the law sort of made sense back in the 80s.  And it still kinda made sense when Google was new and Facebook was still in the future.

But now, things have changed.  In ways that are both dramatic and obvious to anyone who might be reading this post.  Now, by default, the vast majority of users do not store their emails locally (if they even know how to do so).  Emails are almost always accessed through a third party’s servers.  Almost nobody downloads their emails — and even if they do, the original remains on the server.

The vast majority of users expect that their emails, protected by their usernames and passwords, will remain private.  Even though the emails are stored out there in the cloud, the ordinary reasonable expectation is that they are private.

As we all know, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the search and seizure of stuff where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, unless law enforcement gets a warrant based on a showing of probable cause to believe that particular evidence of a particular crime will be discovered by the search.  (For those of you desiring a quick primer on the various exceptions that apply, you can certainly do worse than to listen to N. Burney and G. Mehler’s brilliant CLE lecture, “Search and Seizure in 60 Minutes“)

The exceptions to the Fourth Amendment essentially boil down to situations where the evidence would cease to exist if a warrant were sought, or there’s some other thing we want the police to be able to do (such as make sure people are safe) that might be deterred if they weren’t allowed to use evidence observed in the process.  None of the exceptions are based on a policy of “we probably wouldn’t have probable cause to search in the first place.”

But that is precisely the policy offered by the Obama administration this week.  We kid you not.  Here’s associate deputy attorney general James A. Baker, testifying on why the administration doesn’t want to have to get a warrant to search the cloud:

In order to obtain a search warrant for a particular e-mail account, law enforcement has to establish probable cause to believe that evidence will be found in that particular account. In some cases, this link can be hard to establish.

And if they aren’t allowed to search in cases where they cannot establish probable cause in the first place?  The consequences would be dire, he (more…)

White-Collar Wiretaps

Friday, December 17th, 2010

This’ll be quick, because we’re pretty busy working on a wiretap case, which is always time-consuming if done right.  But as our mind’s on that topic anyway, we thought we’d quickly point out that the latest round of insider-trading cases is again largely derived from wiretaps.  Here’s a roundup over at the WSJ’s law blog.

We just wanted to jump in and point out that just because there were wiretaps, by no stretch of the imagination does that mean the case is a slam dunk.  There are all kinds of ways that agents and prosecutors can and do screw up wire cases.  If properly challenged, the recordings and all evidence gotten as a result of them can get thrown out, which pretty much kills the case.  Don’t go saying this can’t happen, because we happen to see it plenty.  (The one we’re working on right now is a prime example of how not to conduct a wiretap investigation, for example.)

But even if the evidence doesn’t get suppressed, that doesn’t mean it can’t be successfully attacked at trial.  Cross-examining taped evidence isn’t the easiest skill to master, but it’s definitely doable.

If you’re really interested, you can go take our CLE lecture on how to defend these kinds of cases over at West Legal Ed Center (shameless plug).  Or if you prefer, here’s a quick cut-and-paste from a longer post we put up the first time this happened, when the Galleon case broke (original post here):

Wiretap evidence is anything but a sure thing. We know. We did wires for years in the Rackets Bureau of the Manhattan DA’s office, and now we defend them. We’ve taught a nationwide CLE on how to successfully defend them for West LegalEdCenter. Wiretaps are not a sure thing.

They can be defeated with technicalities. Eavesdropping is probably the greatest invasion of privacy that the government can inflict, and so we make law enforcement jump through all kinds of hoops before they are allowed to get an eavesdropping warrant. There are so many i’s to dot and t’s to cross, that the feds hardly use wiretaps in the first place. You’d think otherwise, but (more…)