Imagine if the police could search your home – and the contents of your iPhone and other digital devices – by asserting it was for your own good, then charge you with a crime if their warrantless snooping revealed something illegal.
A case currently before the Supreme Court, Caniglia v. Strom, risks making that terrifying hypothetical situation reality. The case asks whether the police may enter a home without a warrant in a “community-caretaking capacity.”
This exception stems from the recognition that police sometimes perform “community-caretaking” functions beyond law enforcement or keeping the peace. The Supreme Court has authorized a narrow subset of warrantless vehicle searches for police fulfilling a community-caretaking role. But the Court has never previously extended that exception to the home. The Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability (PPSA) Friday joined with Restore the Fourth to file an amicus brief arguing that such a loophole in the Fourth Amendment “would have been nonsensical to the Framers” and that “permitting entry into the home for such functions would have been even more outlandish.”
“If the government can enter your home without a warrant in a community-caretaking capacity,” said Gene Schaerr, PPSA general counsel, “the government will argue that it may treat electronic sources of information in just the same way. After all, the home has historically been the space most protected from government intrusion.”
Our brief argued that non-investigative searches performed in the name of community caretaking could lead to criminal prosecutions:
“Imagine, for example, that the police believe a person posed a risk to himself or others. Under a broadened view of the community-caretaking exception, the police would be free to conduct a warrantless search of the person’s smartphone to evaluate the risk. The police would then be free to browse through the person’s search history, text messages, call logs, and photos—all in the name of caretaking.”
If any illegal activity was detected, “seemingly benevolent searches would then become an engine for criminal prosecutions even though no warrant was ever obtained, and no probable cause ever existed.”
“Such a precedent could pose a monumental threat to privacy and the foundations of the Fourth Amendment,” Schaerr said. “If this principle were logically extended to our digital devices, which enjoy fewer protections than the home, the most sensitive aspects of a person’s life would be routinely accessible to the government whenever it seeks to perform a community-caretaking function. Big Brother would be watching you for your own good!”
PPSA will continue to monitor the government’s attempts to circumvent the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement by expanding exceptions to it.
PPSA is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization concerned about a range of privacy and surveillance issues—from the surveillance of American citizens under the guise of foreign-intelligence gathering, to the monitoring of domestic activities under the guise of law enforcement. Restore the Fourth is a national, non-partisan civil liberties organization dedicated to the robust enforcement of the Fourth Amendment.