My defense of the third-party doctrine, and a response to Randy and Stewart

May 5

With my co-bloggers Randy Barnett and Stewart Baker debating Smith v. Maryland and the third-party doctrine, I figured I would offer some responses. I’ll start with a few links to my views, and then I’ll respond to Randy and Stewart.

First, I think Smith v. Maryland was correctly decided and offers a fundamentally sound principle for applying the Fourth Amendment in a networked world. For those who want the short version of my view, check out this debate with Greg Nojeim. For those who want the longer version, I make the basic argument in “The Case for the Third Party Doctrine,” and I respond to criticisms of my position in “Defending the Third-Party Doctrine: A Response to Epstein and Murphy.” I also develop the idea further in “Applying the Fourth Amendment to the Internet: A General Approach.”

In his post on why Smith v. Maryland cannot support the National Security Agency surveillance program, Randy Barnett writes:

What [Judge] Collyer has upheld is a program of installing a pen register on every American citizen (with a cell phone) for the rest of their lives. What the order in Smith had that the order to Verizon lacks is particularity. The paradigm of what the Fourth Amendment prohibited as “unreasonable” in its first sentence was the use of general warrants, which is why its second sentence requires that warrants must be particular.  . . . In short, she and others like Stewart have failed to come to grips with the following distinction between what was upheld in Smith and the unprecedented NSA bulk data seizure program: a particular seizure vs. a general or undiscriminating one. The unprecedented nature of this program makes it imperative for judges to think carefully before blindly applying some of the language of Smith to this new situation.

I appreciate Randy’s consistent application of his “unprecedented” principle of constitutional interpretation from the Obamacare case. With that said, I don’t think this argument works very well. First, the Fourth Amendment doesn’t prohibit unreasonable things generally. Based on its text, it only prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The scope of a search or seizure goes to its reasonableness, as the example of general warrants indicates. But if government conduct is not a search or seizure, then its reasonableness isn’t relevant to its constitutionality. This is important because Smith v. Maryland held that obtaining numbers dialed was not a search. Given that, I don’t think one can plausibly distinguish Smith on reasonableness grounds. I should also note, contrary to Randy’s claim, that the government did not obtain a specific court order in Smith. Congress did not require a court order for pen registers until 1986, seven years after the Supreme Court’s decision. As a result, there was no court order in Smith. The Supreme Court approved surveillance with no judicial oversight, not surveillance pursuant to particular court orders.

Finally, I agree with Stewart Baker that the line-drawing problem once you reject Smith v. Maryland poses a major problem for Smith‘s critics. I wrote about that at length here and here. In my experience, critics of Smith don’t have much of a response. For example, in our debate on the third-party doctrine, NYU lawprof Erin Murphy had a particularly candid reply to the problem of what would replace Smith: “Truthfully, I have no idea.” I think that’s a problem. If Fourth Amendment scholars who strongly oppose Smith themselves don’t know what should replace it, the need to come up with an alternative should at least give some pause to generalist judges faced with the problem for the first time.

Orin Kerr is the Fred C. Stevenson Research Professor at The George Washington University Law School, where he has taught since 2001. He teaches and writes in the area of criminal procedure and computer crime law.
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