Tim Cushing wonders why we don’t seem to sympathize with the plight of poor, overworked law enforcement officials who find the crushing burden of getting a warrant for accessing your cell phone data to be too hard:
You’d think approved warrants must be like albino unicorns for all the arguing the government does to avoid having to run one by a judge. It continually acts as though there aren’t statistics out there that show obtaining a warrant is about as difficult as obeying the laws of thermodynamics. Wiretap warrants have been approved 99.969% of the time over the last decade. And that’s for something far more intrusive than cell site location data.
But still, the government continues to argue that location data, while possibly intrusive, is simply Just Another Business Record — records it is entitled to have thanks to the Third Party Doctrine. Any legal decision that suggests even the slightest expectation of privacy might have arisen over the past several years as the public’s relationship with cell phones has shifted from “luxury item/business tool” to “even grandma has a smartphone” is greeted with reams of paper from the government, all of it metaphorically pounding on the table and shouting “BUSINESS RECORDS!”
When that fails, it pushes for the lower bar of the Stored Communications Act [PDF] to be applied to its request, dropping it from “probable cause” to “specific and articulable facts.” The Stored Communications Act is the lowest bar, seeing as it allows government agencies and law enforcement to access electronic communications older than 180 days without a warrant. It’s interesting that the government would invoke this to defend the warrantless access to location metadata, seeing as the term “communications” is part of the law’s title. This would seem to imply what’s being sought is actual content — something that normally requires a higher bar to obtain.
Update: Ken White at Popehat says warrants are not particularly strong devices to protect your liberty and lists a few distressing cases where warrants have been issued recently.
We’re faced all the time with the ridiculous warrants judges will sign if they’re asked. Judges will sign a warrant to give a teenager an injection to induce an erection so that the police can photograph it to fight sexting. Judges will, based on flimsy evidence, sign a warrant allowing doctors to medicate and anally penetrate a man because he might have a small amount of drugs concealed in his rectum. Judges will sign a warrant to dig up a yard based on a tip from a psychic. Judges will kowtow to an oversensitive politician by signing a warrant to search the home of the author of a patently satirical Twitter account. Judges will give police a warrant to search your home based on a criminal libel statute if your satirical newspaper offended a delicate professor. And you’d better believe judges will oblige cops by giving them a search warrant when someone makes satirical cartoons about them.
I’m not saying that warrants are completely useless. Warrants create a written record of the government’s asserted basis for an action, limiting cops’ ability to make up post-hoc justifications. Occasionally some prosecutors turn down weak warrant applications. The mere process of seeking a warrant may regulate law enforcement behavior soomewhat.
Rather, I’m saying that requiring the government to get a warrant isn’t the victory you might hope. The numbers — and the experience of criminal justice practitioners — suggests that judges in the United States provide only marginal oversight over what is requested of them. Calling it a rubber stamp is unfair; sometimes actual rubber stamps run out of ink. The problem is deeper than court decisions that excuse the government from seeking warrants because of the War on Drugs or OMG 9/11 or the like. The problem is one of the culture of the criminal justice system and the judiciary, a culture steeped in the notion that “law and order” and “tough on crime” are principled legal positions rather than political ones. The problem is that even if we’d like to see the warrant requirement as interposing neutral judges between our rights and law enforcement, there’s no indication that the judges see it that way.