The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Undercover Facebook investigations and the federal/state divide—a response to David Post


In an earlier post, co-blogger David Post pointed to a state trial court ruling in Montana, for which he was an expert for the defense, which concluded that the government needs a warrant under the Fourth Amendment and/or the Montana Constitution for a police officer to go undercover on Facebook as a teenage girl, "friend" a target, and have conversations with that target. Here's a different perspective on the case. To the extent the judge was relying on the Montana Constitution, the decision is plausible. On the other hand, the decision is plainly wrong if it was relying on the federal Fourth Amendment.

For purposes of the federal Fourth Amendment, the law is really clear: You give up your Fourth Amendment rights in what you knowingly disclose to another person such as an undercover officer or informant. If you communicate with a person in a Fourth Amendment protected space such as your home, you can't claim a Fourth Amendment violation in what you shared with the person if they violated your confidences and happen to be (or are working with) law enforcement. See, e.g., United States v. White, 401 U.S. 745 (1971); Hoffa v. United States, 385 U.S. 293 (1966); Lewis v. United States, 385 U.S. 206 (1966); Osborn v. United States, 385 U.S. 323 (1966); Lopez v. United States, 373 U.S. 427 (1963); On Lee v. United States, 343 U.S. 747 (1952).

As I explained in a forthcoming article, this legal rule was originally the point of the "subjective expectation of privacy" test of Katz, the thought being that you did not "manifest" your privacy rights in what you disclosed to another even in Fourth Amendment protected space. The Supreme Court later moved the principle over to the "objective expectation of privacy" test instead, where it announced the idea as the so-called third-party doctrine: "[T]he Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the obtaining of information revealed to a third party and conveyed by him to Government authorities, even if the information is revealed on the assumption that it will be used only for a limited purpose and the confidence placed in the third party will not be betrayed." United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435, 443 (1976).

Those principles are directly applicable in the Montana decision. The defendant, Windham, thought he was communicating with a 16-year old girl named "Tammy Andrews." It turned out that "Andrews" was actually an adult police officer, proof that on the Internet nobody knows you're a cop. The government is trying to use what the officer saw as "Tammy Andrews" in communication with Windham, which is only what Windham knowingly reveled to "Andrews." From a standpoint of the federal Fourth Amendment, it's a trivial case. There's no plausible argument for Fourth Amendment protection.

Importantly, though, that doesn't mean that the result is wrong. It may just be correct as to the Montana Constitution instead of the Fourth Amendment. State courts can interpret the state constitution more broadly than the federal Fourth Amendment And in State v. Goetz, 345 Mont. 421 (2008), the Montana Supreme Court held that the state constitution requires a warrant when an undercover agent wants to record a one-on-one conversation with a target, even though the Fourth Amendment doesn't require that. Under Goetz, there's at least a plausible argument that either the use of the undercover, or at least the recording of the communications, required a warrant under the state constitution.

It's not a slam dunk, though, for two reasons. First, the focus in Goetz seems to be the recording of the communication without the target's consent. Facebook communications are inherently "recorded" in the sense that this is how Facebook works. In analogous contexts, some state courts have held that a target consents to recording when they use messaging services that necessarily record their messages.

Second, it might matter that the defendant in this case was in Germany at the time these communications ensued. Assume there's a requirement of a warrant under the Montana Constitution for communications that occur inside Montana. If an undercover officer in Montana has communications with a target in Germany, does the Montana Constitution require the same warrant? Is the search occurring in Germany for purposes of the state constitution, and if so can a Montana court issue a warrant for a search there? Or does the search occur in Montana for state constitutional purposes because the recording occurred there? I'm not sure.

However a court should resolve these questions, though, this is an argument only about the state constitution rather than the Fourth Amendment. Under the Supremacy Clause, the ruling would apply to state officers but not federal officers.

Finally, in the comment threads to David's post, several commenters raised the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. If the government thinks it's a crime to violate Terms of Service on Facebook, which was the DOJ position in the Lori Drew case, why doesn't that forbid the government's procedure here as a matter of federal law? I think there are three independent reasons. First, an exception to the CFAA expressly exempts law enforcement investigations, see 18 U.S.C. 1030(f), so this wouldn't violate the CFAA even if you believe that TOS violations generally violate the CFAA. Second, there is no federal suppression remedy for statutory violations absent a clear directive of Congress, of which there is none here. And third, even though DOJ argued that the TOS violations in Drew violated the CFAA, the DOJ was wrong, as the district court recognized in tossing the convictions.