In light of the renewed discussion on the future of the third party doctrine on this blog and elsewhere (much of it attributable to Riley), I’d like to focus my next couple of posts on the oft-criticized rule, with the aim of exploring a few questions that will hopefully be interesting* to readers. For the purpose of these posts, I’m assuming readers are familiar with the third party doctrine and the arguments for and against it.
I’ll start with the following question: Let’s assume the Supreme Court decides to scale back the third party doctrine. Where in the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence should the Justices look for an alternative approach? I think this is an interesting and important question in light of the serious debate, both in academia and on the Supreme Court, about the third party doctrine’s effect on privacy in the information age.
One answer, which may represent the conventional wisdom, is that there simply is nothing in the Supreme Court’s existing precedent that supports a departure from the Court’s all or nothing approach to Fourth Amendment rights in Smith and Miller. According to this answer, the Court’s only choice if it wishes to “reconsider” the third party doctrine is to create new, technology specific rules that address the problems of the day. (I’ve argued elsewhere that existing Fourth Amendment doctrine doesn’t bind the Court to rigid applications of its existing rules in the face of new technologies.)
A closer look at the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence suggests another option, however. The Supreme Court has not applied the underlying rationale from its third party doctrine cases to all forms of government intrusion. Indeed, for almost a century the Supreme Court has been willing to depart from the all or nothing approach in another Fourth Amendment context: government searches of dwellings and homes. As I’ll discuss below, the Supreme Court has used various tools—including the implied license rule in last year’s Jardines, the standard of “common understandings,” and the scope of consent rules in co-habitant cases—to allow homeowners, cohabitants, tenants, hotel-guests, overnight guests, and the like maintain Fourth Amendment rights against the government even though they have given third parties access to the same space.
In other words, it is both common sense and black letter law that a person can provide third parties access to his home for a particular purpose without losing all Fourth Amendment rights against government intrusion. Letting the landlord or the maid into your home for a limited purpose doesn’t necessarily give the police a license to enter without a warrant—even if the police persuade the landlord or the maid to let them in. Yet the Court has abandoned that type of nuance in the context of informational privacy, holding that sharing information with a third party means forgoing all Fourth Amendment rights against government access to that information (a principle that has eloquently been described as the “secrecy paradigm”). As many have noted, this rule has had a corrosive effect on Fourth Amendment rights in a world where sensitive information is regularly shared with third parties as a matter of course.
Why has the Court applied such a nuanced approach to Fourth Amendment rights when it comes to real property and the home, but not when it comes to informational privacy? And have changes in technology undermined some of the rationale justifying this divergence? These are questions I’ll explore further in Part II of this post; in the meantime I’d love to hear what readers think about them. I’ll spend the rest of this post providing some additional background on the Court’s approach to privacy in the context of real property searches.
More after the jump.