Missouri voters amend constitution to expressly protect “electronic communications and data” — but what, if anything, would that do?

The vote took place yesterday, and the amendment passed by a 75%-25% margin. But exactly what it means is unclear. Here’s Orin Kerr’s post on this from late June:

TechCrunch reports that Missouri voters will soon be asked to amend the state constitution to expressly include computer search and seizure protections. Based on my read of the proposed amendment, however, I have a hard time understanding what (if any) difference the amendment would make.

The Missouri Constitution currently has a search and seizure provision that largely matches the text of the federal Fourth Amendment:

That the people shall be secure in their persons, papers, homes and effects, from unreasonable searches and seizures; and no warrant to search any place, or seize any person or thing, shall issue without describing the place to be searched, or the person or thing to be seized, as nearly as may be; nor without probable cause, supported by written oath or affirmation.

The proposed amendment would add the text in bold:

That the people shall be secure in their persons, papers, homes [and], effects, and electronic communications and data, from unreasonable searches and seizures; and no warrant to search any place, or seize any person or thing, or access electronic data or communication, shall issue without describing the place to be searched, or the person or thing to be seized, or the data or communication to be accessed, as nearly as may be; nor without probable cause, supported by written oath or affirmation.

So what does this do?

Perhaps nothing. The Fourth Amendment already offers protections against accessing electronic data and communications. That federal protection applies to the actions of state and local officials through the Fourteenth Amendment. According to federal circuit decisions, the Fourth Amendment already extends the same protection in your e-mail stored on a server somewhere that it extends to the postal mail in your home. And the government already commits the same Fourth Amendment seizure if it copies your private data and keeps the copy that it does if it takes your private papers and keeps them. In both cases, a warrant is already required. Given these precedents, it’s not clear that the proposed new language to the Missouri state constitution actually adds any new protection. Perhaps the Missouri amendment just ensures that Missouri state courts agree with these lower court precedents?

It’s also possible that Missouri courts will construe the new language as going beyond Fourth Amendment protections. The state equivalent of the Fourth Amendment has been interpreted in its current form as mirroring the federal Fourth Amendment. See State v. Oliver, 293 S.W.3d 437, 442 (Mo. banc 2009) (“Article I, section 15 of the Missouri Constitution provides the same guarantees against unreasonable search and seizures; thus, the same analysis applies to cases under the Missouri Constitution as under the United States Constitution.”). If the amendment passes, perhaps courts will interpret the new text as doing something more. Still, it’s not clear just what that “more” will be. Further, even if courts construe the new language as doing something new, that new thing will only restrict Missouri state and local officials. Under the Supremacy Clause, state constitutional limits do not apply to federal law enforcement.

In short, the proposed Missouri Amendment may do something or nothing at all.

UPDATE: Via twitter, a reader suggests that the inclusion of “data” in addition to “communications” might be a reference to metadata. If so, perhaps the provision is designed to reject the third-party doctrine under the state constitution (or at least its application to Internet metadata). That’s certainly possible. At the same time, it would be a very awkward way to make the point for two reasons. First, I would think that the most natural reading of the phrase “electronic communications and data” is that the former refers to communications and the latter refers to non-communications data. For example, most if not all of the contents of your laptop consists of data that are not communications.

Second, the third-party doctrine is based on the idea that third-party records belong to the third party, not the user. Given that, a directive that people shall have rights in “their . . . data” is not inconsistent with the third-party doctrine. Yes, people have rights in their data, the argument would run; but they don’t have rights in the phone company’s data and therefore don’t have Fourth Amendment protection in metadata. Of course, awkwardness doesn’t mean that this isn’t what the drafters had in mind. But it’s not an obvious reading of the text.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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Eugene Volokh · August 6