Does Seizure of Smart Device Data Violate the Fourth Amendment?

It’s a question that has not fully been answered: can investigators use data from “smart” devices as evidence in their investigations, or is such data protected under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution? The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, which has historically included communications that were made with a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. But how private can we expect our data to be in the Information Age?

Let’s take a closer look at the contents of the Fourth Amendment, its changes through time, and how it applies to smart device data.

The Fourth Amendment

The text of the Fourth Amendment States: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Unreasonable Search and Seizure

In layman’s terms, the Fourth Amendment prevents law enforcement from searching a person or their property without probable cause. It also prohibits judges from issuing search warrants without probable cause. This protection extends to a person, their home, their papers, their vehicle, and their personal effects (ie, what they’re wearing or carrying with them).

The protection granted by the Fourth Amendment was interpreted to protect people from warrantless searches anywhere that person had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

This is where things get tricky. Before everyone carried a cell phone on their person, their “personal effects” were limited in scope. There was only so much room for incriminating evidence in a person’s pockets, purses, or backpacks.

These days, cell phones and wearable tech can store massive amounts of data that could potentially be incriminating. Search histories, purchase histories, and personal messages kept on the device could be embarrassing or harmful if seized by investigators without a warrant.

Smart Devices Broadcast Data

Additionally, smart devices broadcast information via the Internet of Things (IoT) and social media. By agreeing to the terms of an app and installing it, millions of people give that app permission to broadcast their location, their purchases, their actions and updates. One could argue that no reasonable expectation of privacy exists when using smart devices, and that the Third-Party Doctrine applies.

The Third-Party Doctrine states that an expectation of privacy may be diminished if the person knowingly shares the information with a third party – in this case, the cell company that keeps records of their data.

Others disagree, maintaining that smart devices should count as personal effects and should not be searched or seized without a warrant. Unfortunately, the matter has not yet been settled in court.

Davis, Ermis & Roberts is On Your Side

If you feel that your rights have been violated, call us immediately! We serve all the civil and criminal courts in Dallas, Tarrant, Rockwall, Collin, and Ellis County, and we are available after hours for your convenience.