Monday, December 30, 2013

Reconsidering the "Pen Register": Smith v. Maryland and the Constitutionality of NSA Surveillance

As we discussed earlier this month,  two federal district judges have reached opposite conclusions regarding the constitutionality of NSA surveillance as revealed by Edward Snowden.  In Klayman v. Obama, Judge Richard Leon granted a preliminary injunction against NSA surveillance of telephone metadata, while in American Civil Liberties Union v. Clapper,  Judge William J. Pauley granted a motion to dismiss in favor of the government, finding the same program constitutional.

POLARISBoth of these opinions have brought renewed attention to the 1979 “pen register” case - - - Smith v. Maryland - - - which involved the application of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” to a then new, and now outmoded, technology that could ascertain the number a phone was dialing.  As footnote 1 of Smith explained, “A pen register is a mechanical device that records the numbers dialed on a telephone by monitoring the electrical impulses caused when the dial on the telephone is released. It does not overhear oral communications and does not indicate whether calls are actually completed.”  It is "usually installed at a central telephone facility [and] records on a paper tape all numbers dialed from [the] line" to which it is attached.” 

In Smith, the Court looked to its “lodestar” 1967 decision in Katz v. United States (involving a telephone booth) and determined that there was no “search” under the Fourth Amendment because the person invoking the constitutional protection did not have a reasonable or legitimate expectation of privacy.  For the majority in Smith this lack of an expectation of privacy was based on  a consumer’s  understanding of telephone technology: telephone subscribers know that the telephone company receives their transmitted telephone number (that is how the call is completed) and can record that number (perhaps for a long distance charge).  And even if a consumer does not subjectively understand this, any expectation of privacy that such circumstances did not occur would not be legitimate.

Now Smith v. Maryland has become a “lodestar” decision of its own.  Judge Richard Leon's decision in Klayman extensively analyzed the opinion, eventually concluding that “the Smith pen register and the ongoing NSA Bulk Telephony Metadata Program have so many significant distinctions between them that I cannot possibly navigate these uncharted Fourth Amendment waters using as my North Star a case that predates the rise of cell phones.”  To the contrary, Judge Pauley, granting the government's motion to dismiss in ACLU v. Clapper essentially used Smith as the opinion's guiding light.

But perhaps the choice is not as stark as whether Smith is steady in the Fourth Amendment skies.  Looking at Justice Blackmun’s opinion in Smith,  he illuminates the two prongs of Katz:

as Mr. Justice Harlan aptly noted in his Katz concurrence, normally embraces two discrete questions. The first is whether the individual, by his conduct, has "exhibited an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy,"  whether, in the words of the Katz majority, the individual has shown that "he seeks to preserve [something] as private." The second question is whether the individual's subjective expectation of privacy is "one that society is prepared to recognize as 'reasonable,' "—whether, in the words of the Katz majority, the individual's expectation, viewed objectively, is "justifiable" under the circumstances.5

[citations omitted].  Perhaps importantly, the passage ends with a footnote:

Situations can be imagined, of course, in which Katz' two-pronged inquiry would provide an inadequate index of Fourth Amendment protection. For example, if the Government were suddenly to announce on nationwide television that all homes henceforth would be subject to warrantless entry, individuals thereafter might not in fact entertain any actual expectation or privacy regarding their homes, papers, and effects. Similarly, if a refugee from a totalitarian country, unaware of this Nation's traditions, erroneously assumed that police were continuously monitoring his telephone conversations, a subjective expectation of privacy regarding the contents of his calls might be lacking as well. In such circumstances, where an individual's subjective expectations had been "conditioned" by influences alien to well-recognized Fourth Amendment freedoms, those subjective expectations obviously could play no meaningful role in ascertaining what the scope of Fourth Amendment protection was. In determining whether a "legitimate expectation of privacy" existed in such cases, a normative inquiry would be proper.

Law Prof Josh Blackman, over at his blog, has revealed the sources of this footnote - - - apparently necessary to address Justice Stevens’ concerns about a totalitarian regime that would make any expectation of privacy by individuals not reasonable or legitimate.  Josh Blackman reproduces the correspondence showing that Stevens asked for the footnote and got it, eliminating his need for a separate concurrence.  

Apparently, Justices Stewart, Marshall, and Brennan, who did dissent, had concerns that were not so simply assuaged.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to deliberate footnote 5 in light of the extent to which Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of surveillance have been greeted as confirmatory and predictable rather than as shocking and outrageous.   And perhaps footnote 5 might become as important as other constitutional footnotes as we (re)consider what the expectations of privacy in a constitutional democracy should be.

[image: time-lapsed image of Polaris, the North Star, via]

 

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