Constitutional Issues

Another New York court weighs in on access to cell phone geolocation data

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Another New York court weighs in on access to cell phone geolocation data

Last week I wrote about a case that I came across while conducting research for the annual update of the Thomson Reuter’s substantive criminal law book that I co-author, “Criminal Law in New York.” That case, People v. Jiles, 158 A.D.3d 75 (4th Dept. 2017), concluded that a warrant was not needed to obtain historical cell phone records in order to view a user’s location data. (Notably, the holding in Jiles was contradicted by the conclusion reached in a subsequent United States Supreme Court decision, Carpenter v. U.S., No. 16-402, 585 U.S. ____ (2018), which I wrote about in this column in July).

In conducting my annual research, I encountered another interesting case addressing a similar, but slightly different issue: People v. Gordon, 58 Misc. 3d 544 (NY Sup. Ct. 2017). The question in this case was whether the pen register statute applied to the use of cell site simulator to determine a suspect's location  via geolocation data obtained from a cell phone.

The defendant in this case was charged with a number of different crimes, including attempted murder in the second degree. While investigating the case, the police sought to locate the defendant using his cell phone and applied for a judicial pen register/trap and trace authorization for the defendant’s cell phone, and specifically requested to use a cell site simulator.

The request was granted, and included use of the cell site simulator. The defendant was located shortly thereafter and arrested. He filed a motion to suppress the results of the information gleaned from the cell site simulator on the ground that it was unlawfully obtained.

At the outset, the court examined the pen register/trap statute, New York's CPL Art. 705.00, noting that its intent is provide law enforcement with limited access to specific cell phone data, namely “the numbers dialed or otherwise transmitted in outgoing and incoming calls.” The court noted that unlike federal law, which was recently expanded, it does not “does not authorize the gathering of location information using a cell phone's Global Positioning system (GPS), nor does it authorize the gathering of additional information, that might include the content of a phone's calls or text messages by the use of a pen register and/or trap and trace order.”

Next, the court explained that due to the strictly limited nature of the information obtained from pen register/trap devices, law enforcement need only show reasonable suspicion in order to obtain a judicial order under the statute. The rationale behind the lower standard of proof is that “pen register/trap and trace devices only record the phone numbers dialed-outgoing or incoming-and do not disclose more than what phone users voluntarily convey to the telephone company in the ordinary course of business.”

The court then compared the type of data obtained from pen register/trap devices to the more intrusive information collected by GPS devices. It explained that because of the increased level of intrusiveness, the New York Court of Appeals has concluded that the New York State Constitution requires law enforcement to make a showing of probable cause in the absence of exigent circumstances prior to a warrant being issued for the use of a GPS tracking device.

Next the court turned to an examination of how cell site simulators work, explaining that cell site simulators collect information from a specific device rather than a cell phone provider. According to the court, “(i)n addition to downloading information from all the cellular phones located in the area, a cell site simulator can be used to locate a specific cellular phone when the phone owner's phone number is known, but not the location…” and maybe even be able to “obtain and record a wide array of data from an individual's cell phone, including highly precise real time cell phone location and the contents of voice and text communications.”

The court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress concluding that cell site simulators were more akin to GPS devices given the invasive nature of the information collected by cell site simulators and thus “the use of a cell site simulator intrudes upon an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, acting as an instrument of eavesdropping and requires a separate warrant supported by probable cause rather than a mere pen register/trap and trace order such as the one obtained in this case.”

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


Fourth Amendment ramifications of Facebook “searches” by police

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Fourth Amendment ramifications of Facebook “searches” by police

I’ve written extensively in the past about the ethical obligations of lawyers who seek to obtain evidence using social media. The specific issues addressed in ]that context are irrelevant for the purposes of this column, but of note is that all of the ethical opinions on the topic of lawyers mining social media for evidence differentiate between publicly available information and that which is only accessible behind a privacy wall. In other words, the rules are different when lawyers or their agents seek to connect with someone online via a social network in order to view posts that can only be viewed by a person’s connections or “friends.”

But what happens when law enforcement officers seek to do the same thing - obtain social media evidence that can only be accessed behind a privacy wall? One of the more interesting issues to consider is whether the conduct constitutes a search, and if so, does “friending” someone in order to view information behind a privacy wall - in the absence of a warrant - violate the Fourth Amendment?

That very issue was addressed in Everett v. Delaware, No. 257, 2017. The question asked of the court was: “When a person voluntarily accepts a “friend” request on Facebook from an undercover police officer, and then exposes incriminating evidence, does the Fourth Amendment protect against this mistaken trust?”

In this case, a police detective created a fake Facebook profile and eventually sent the defendant a “friend” request, which was accepted. The detective then monitored the defendant’s Facebook account for 2 years, viewing it 1 to 3 times per week. The defendant had a number of violent felony convictions and was thus unable to possess firearms. Shortly after he posted a photo to Facebook that included firearms, among other items, the detective applied for a warrant to search the defendant’s home, which was granted. The subsequent search resulted in evidence that was later used to prosecute the defendant for numerous felonies. The defendant was convicted after trial and this appeal challenging the constitutionality of the original search of his home was filed.

In reaching its decision, the Court applied a 2-step inquiry. Its first task was to ascertain whether the Facebook monitoring violated the Fourth Amendment or Article I, Section 6 of the Delaware Constitution. If so, then its remaining task was to, after removing the tainted evidence from the warrant affidavit, determine whether the information remaining provided a neutral magistrate with probable cause to issue a search warrant.

The Court did not reach the second step of the inquiry since it concluded that the defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when he shared information with people that he chose to make his Facebook friends. The Court explained that the defendant “assumed the risk” that one of his “friends” might be an undercover officer:

“(T)he Fourth Amendment does not guard against the risk that the person from whom one accepts a ‘friend request’ and to whom one voluntary disclosed such information might turn out to be an undercover officer or a ‘false friend.’ One cannot reasonably believe that such ‘false friends’ will not disclose incriminating statements or information to law enforcement—and acts under the risk that one such person might actually be an undercover government agent. And thus, one does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in incriminating information shared with them because that is not an expectation that the United States Supreme Court has said that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.”

In other words, caveat emptor: social media-users beware. The lesson to be learned is to only share information with your online “friends” that you would readily share with a law enforcement officer. After all, as I always say, better safe than sorry!

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She can be reached at niki.black@mycase.com.


Can consent to search be obtained via Google Translate?

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Can consent to search be obtained via Google Translate?

Technological advances over the past decade have occurred at an unprecedented rate. As a result, there have been drastic improvements in machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies in recent years, making many science fiction fantasies a newfound reality. A great example of this is Google Translate, a tool that instantly translates speech.

Within the last few years, Google Translate has become widely available as a free online and mobile app and provides the immediate ability to translate words, both spoken and written, from one language to another. Because it’s so easily accessible, it should come as no surprise that it was recently used by law enforcement to interact with a suspect, resulting in a case that addressed an interesting constitutional question. Specifically, earlier this month, in U.S. v. Cruz-Zamora, the United States Court for the District of Kansas considered the issue of whether a non-English speaking individual can consent via Google Translate to a search of his car by law enforcement.

The case arose from a traffic stop which was initiated because of the defendant’s suspended registration. At the beginning of the encounter, the officer realized that the defendant spoke very little English. He then moved the defendant to his patrol vehicle and began to communicate with him using Google Translate via his car’s laptop. While speaking to him using Google Translate, the defendant allegedly gave the officer permission to search his vehicle, which the officer did, leading to the discovery of illegal drugs.

The defendant later alleged that the search was unconstitutional. During the suppression hearing, the officer admitted that a live translator would have been preferable but none were available. He also admitted that the defendant didn’t always understand his questions.

Two professional interpreters also testified at the hearing, and after reviewing the video and audio recordings of the encounter, both opined that it was clear that the defendant was often confused when responding to questions and didn’t always seem to understand what was being asked of him. They also testified that Google Translate failed to take context into consideration and thus “should only be used for literal word-for-word translations.”

In its opinion, the Court initially explained that it was the defendant’s contention that “any evidence obtained as a result of the car search should be suppressed because he did not understand (the officer) and therefore could not knowingly consent to the search.”

Next, the court determined, based primarily on the testimony of the professional interpreters, that “while it might be reasonable for an officer to use Google Translate to gather basic information such as the defendant’s name or where the defendant was travelling (sic), the court does not believe it is reasonable to rely on the service to obtain consent to an otherwise illegal search.”

The Court explained that although the audio and video recordings of the encounter showed that the defendant had a basic understanding of the questions asked of him, the testimony of the interpreters and a review of the transcript indicated that the defendant’s purported consent to search was invalid. The Court concluded that it did “not find the government ha(d) met its burden to show defendant’s consent was ‘unequivocal and specific and freely and intelligently given.’’

Next the court turned to an alternative argument made by the government: that the good faith exception applied, and thus the evidence should not be suppressed. Specifically, the government contended that the officer acted in good faith since he reasonably relied on Google Translate and its translations. In opposition, the defendant asserted that the officer could not “reasonably rely on a mistake of his own making.”

The Court agreed with the defense, and excluded the evidence:

“(T)he good-faith exception does not apply as it is not reasonable for an officer to use and rely on Google Translate to obtain consent to a warrantless search, especially when an officer has other options for more reliable translations. The government has not met its burden to show defendant’s consent was “unequivocal and specific and freely and intelligently given,”…and the court will not interpret defendant’s compliance with Wolting’s instructions to stand by the side of the road during the search as implied consent, considering the totality of the circumstances. The court finds that application of the exclusionary rule is appropriate in this case, and therefore grants defendant’s motion to suppress.”

The lesson to be learned is that while the technology has dramatically improved in recent years, it’s often far from perfect. Tools like Google Translate are improving by leaps and bounds, but it is ill-advised to indiscriminately relying on them when comprehension is crucial and carries legal ramifications. Technology is not a panacea; it merely supplements hard-earned technical skills and expertise - it doesn’t replace them.

 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She can be reached at niki.black@mycase.com.


U.S. Supreme Court on First Amendment rights and social media

Stacked3Here is this week's Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Last month the United States Supreme Court weighed in on the intersection of the First Amendment with social media in Packinham v. North Carolina, No. 15–1194

The Court struck down a North Carolina criminal statute on First Amendment grounds. The law provided that registered sex offenders who used social media sites that could be accessed by children could be convicted of a felony. Although the majority’s holding itself was notable, even more interesting and groundbreaking was the language used by the court in reaching its decision.

At the outset, the majority confirmed the far-reaching impact of the internet and social media on our society, and importantly acknowledged that when issuing rulings related to technology, courts must understand that it is ever advancing and always changing: “While we now may be coming to the realization that the Cyber Age is a revolution of historic proportions, we cannot appreciate yet its full dimensions and vast potential to alter how we think, express ourselves, and define who we want to be. The forces and directions of the Internet are so new, so protean, and so far reaching that courts must be conscious that what they say today might be obsolete tomorrow.”

Next, the majority turned to social media and noted the potential it has to amplify each and every person’s message, allowing everyone an opportunity to be heard.”These websites can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard. They allow a person with an Internet connection to ‘become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.’”

The majority then engaged in what I consider to be the hallmark of every well-decided opinion involving issues related to internet activities: analogized the online conduct to similar offline conduct:. The majority wisely explained: “The better analogy to this case is Board of Airport Comm’rs of Los Angeles v. Jews for Jesus, Inc., 482 U. S. 569 (1987), where the Court struck down an ordinance prohibiting any ‘First Amendment activities’ at Los Angeles International Airport because the ordinance covered all manner of protected, nondisruptive behavior including ‘talking and reading, or the wearing of campaign buttons or symbolic clothing,’ id., at 571, 575. If a law prohibiting ‘all protected expression’ at a single airport is not constitutional, id., at 574 (emphasis deleted), it follows with even greater force that the State may not enact this complete bar to the exercise of First Amendment rights on websites integral to the fabric of our modern society and culture.”

In comparison, the dissent’s position was a great example of the common knee jerk reaction to new technologies sometimes shown by courts and ethics bars across the country, wherein the dissent exhibited a reluctance to adapt to the changing times: “Cyberspace is different from the physical world, and if it is true, as the Court believes, that ‘we cannot appreciate yet’ the ‘full dimensions and vast potential’ of ‘the Cyber Age,’ ibid., we should proceed circumspectly, taking one step at a time.”

Interestingly, this reticence toward embracing new technologies that was expressed by the dissenting justices, Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito, is rarely present when those same justices apply emerging technologies to limit constitutional rights, rather than expand them. For example, no such reluctance has been shown when these same justices diminish the Fourth Amendment rights of American citizens, whether it’s permitting the use of technology to enhance the ability of law enforcement to snoop on U.S. citizens or granting law enforcement unfettered investigational access to data stored online. These countervailing approaches to technology by the more conservative members of the court represent a strange, but not entirely surprising, contradiction of ideology, and it’s a trend that I don’t expect will change anytime soon.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, legal technology journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for solo and small law firms. She is also the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She can be reached at niki@mycase.com.

 


Speaking up, and being censored

Last week, a column that I submitted was rejected by a publication for which I've written for nearly a decade. This was the first time one of my submissions was rejected even though my columns have occasionally delved into political territory in the past.

So, I'm now posting my rejected column, here, in its entirety.

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If Not Now, When?


As I sat down to write my column today, I found myself incapable of writing about anything other than the state of our world post-election. The elevation of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land marks a radical shift in our politics and in our lives. Hate has been normalized and the most vulnerable and helpless members of our society are at risk.

As lawyers, we are uniquely qualified to come to their aid and make a difference in the coming months and years. Already the practicality of establishing registries for Muslim immigrants - something that seemed a farfetched idea just weeks ago - is being actively discussed by members of the President-elect’s incoming cabinet and the inexcusable and shameful Japanese internments from World War II have been offered as precedent for said registries. Mass deportations are also on the table, with no care given to how those deported will be received in the countries from which they have fled. Hate crimes are being committed in the name of our President-elect across the country at an alarming rate.

Freedom is at risk. Liberty is at risk. Lives are at risk. Not just the lives and liberties of those being targeted by the incoming administration, but the lives and liberties of all Americans. We are at a pivotal moment in our history and we have a choice: we can either sit idly by and allow the unthinkable to occur or we can take action. As attorneys, we have an obligation to use our skills and our voices to fight for what’s right and just. We must make a difference.

But where do we start? We organize, donate money, provide pro bono representation, and offer vocal support to those who are vulnerable. We can make a difference on many levels, both professionally and personally.

Shortly after the election, I stepped back and gave careful thought to the steps I could immediately take to foster change. And then, I acted. If you, too, are interested in taking action, here are some ideas.

First, consider setting up recurring donations to organizations that fight for social justice, including: NAACP Legal Defense Fund, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Center for Reproductive Rights, Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center, Trevor Project for LGBT Youth, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Council on American-Islamic Relations, and National Immigration Law Center. Also consider donating to local organizations with similar goals.

Because free, unencumbered press is fundamental to a democratic society, one way to forward these rights is to support news organizations that provide quality, in-depth reporting, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. Another option is to donate to ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.

The right to assemble and peacefully protest is likewise another important First Amendment right, so consider attending the upcoming protest in Washington, D.C., the Women's March, on January 21st or other more local protests.

Finally, I invite you to join a local group that I've organized of nearly 40 like-minded locals, including many lawyers, who would like to start taking steps to help those who will be most affected by the predicted policies of this new administration. Our first meeting was held over the weekend and we are starting our work to have a positive impact and effect change in our local community. Message me on social media (@nikiblack on Twitter or via LinkedIn) and I’ll send you more information.

So please, join us. This is a pivotal time in our history, and we cannot be complacent. If you, like me, are concerned about the future of our country and the impact of the policies that will likely be implemented by this incoming administration, now is the time to step up to the plate and take action. If not now, when?

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for the modern law firm. She is also the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can be reached at niki@mycase.com.


Pokemon Go: It’s Here And Law Enforcement Needs To Be Aware Of It

Stacked3Here is this week's Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Pokemon Go: It’s Here And Law Enforcement Needs To Be Aware Of It

Pokemon Go. You’ve heard about it but likely have no idea what it is or why so many people are wandering around in circles in front of statues babbling about gyms, Pokestops, and “powering up.”

Here’s the low down. It’s an augmented reality smartphone app that was released in the United States a little over a week ago and since that time it’s been downloaded more than twice as many times as Tinder and its user numbers are quickly catching up to Twitter’s.

This app overlays an augmented map over your location and overlays the Pokemon world onto your own reality. This means as you stand on a street corner you can “see” Pokestops in front of stores, monuments, statues, and churches. When you walk to these locations you can obtain items that help you play the game more effectively. And Pokestops “refresh” approximately every 5 minutes, so you soon return to the Pokestop to obtain more items.

You can also see gyms, which are where people go in order to battle against other Pokemon teams (there are 3 teams: red, blue, and yellow) in order to claim the gym. You have to walk to the gym in order to battle.

There are also creatures called “Pokemon.” As you walk around, they will suddenly appear and you have to lob Pokeballs (which you obtain at the Pokestops) at the Pokemon in order to capture them. The goal is to capture, power up, and evolve as many Pokemon as possible and then battle them in the gyms. The map also indicates locations where Pokemon might be, so people tend to follow that trail in order to obtain more elusive Pokemon.

People also obtain Pokemon eggs, which incubate and won’t hatch until the player has walked at least 5 km - and sometimes 10 km. So the game encourages people to walk around - a lot.

The last piece of the puzzle that is relevant to this discussion is the ability to set up a “lure” in order to lure Pokemon to you for a 30 minute period. When players set up a lure at a Pokestop, the map shows that there is an active lure and everyone in the area gravitates toward the lure so that they can take advantage of the sudden influx of Pokemon and capture them.

So what is this game causing people to do? Walk around. A lot. And sometimes players will run onto the lawns of private homes or businesses in order to snag an elusive Pokemon. They are also gathering in groups, large and small, in public places at all times, day and night - such as where there are Pokestops, gyms, or when a lure is set. This often results in motley crews of people who might otherwise would not have a reason to stand around together: people young and old, people of different races and nationalities, and people from very different walks of life.

To the outside observer unfamiliar with the game, much of this activity can appear suspicious or even menacing. For example, when kids (some of whom are rather large high schoolers) run around neighborhoods and through yards, people become understandably fearful when they see what appears to be a large man lumbering through their backyard. I suspect that very behavior is what lead to a sheriff’s cruiser driving very slowly through my suburban neighborhood the other day.

Also suspicious to the outward eye are small groups of people in unusual circumstances who generally would not be seen together absent presumed unlawful intent. By way of example, a 50-year old white man shared online that he couldn’t sleep one night and was hunting Pokemon in the local park at 2 a.m. when two young black men who were also playing noticed him and they started talking about the game while sitting on a park bench. Shortly thereafter a police officer showed up, likely suspecting a drug deal. After much discussion they convinced him otherwise and even got him to download the app.

The sudden gathering of large groups of people in public places could also be viewed a threatening by local law enforcement unfamiliar with the phenomenon This is especially so in light of the recent protests occurring across the country.

The bottom line: law enforcement needs to be aware of this app, how it works, and the way that people using it behave in order to avoid misunderstandings that could unexpectedly escalate. I sent messages via Twitter early last week to both the Rochester Police Department and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office to that effect. Neither responded to me.

Pokemon Go is catching on like wildfire. On a weeknight last week at 9 p.m., there were more than 30 people from all walks of life gathered near the library in the small village of Pittsford, New York after a lure was set. Central Park in New York City has been coined “Pokemon Central,” with reports of hundreds of people gathering near Pokestops and gyms at any given time. This is happening in cities, big and small, and the numbers will only increase over time.

My hope is that police departments locally and across the country get up to speed quickly. Pokemon Go may seem strange to the outside observer, but players shouldn’t be subjected to unnecessary police encounters due to ignorance on the part of law enforcement - especially when these types of encounters can sometimes go horribly wrong. So local law enforcement agencies, consider this a heads up: Pokemon Go has arrived. Learn about it, understand it, and police accordingly.

 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for the modern law firm. She is also the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can be reached at niki@mycase.com.


Join Me In NYC On 5/9 At NASDAQ To Celebrate Law Day

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Next week on May 9th I'll be in NYC with MyCase and the ABA. I hope you can join me to celebrate Law Day--with a focus on the importance of the Miranda decision and preserving our constitutional rights--at an event hosted by MyCase at NASDAQ in Times Square!

Please join me on Monday May 9th from 5:30-8pm for:

  • An Open Bar and passed apps overlooking Times Square
  • Presentation from ABA President Paulette Brown
  • Networking with legal colleagues at NASDAQ Marketsite - 4 Times Square

Reserve your spot here.


Criminal and privacy implications of drones

Stacked3This week's Daily Record column is entitled "Criminal and privacy implications of drones."  My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Criminal, privacy implications of drones

Every summer I work on the annual update for the book that I co-author with Judge Karen Morris: Criminal Law in New York. As part of my responsibilities, I review all of the cases about the substantive elements of the crimes to which I’ve been assigned and then write about the implications of the newest holdings.

Of course technology has had an impact on New York’s Penal Law and is discussed in the cases about which I write. Oftentimes, the effects of technology are found in cases addressing aggravated harassment, criminal contempt, or crimes related to privacy rights such as unlawful surveillance. Not surprisingly, as someone who regularly writes about the intersection of law and technology, I am always particularly interested when technological advancements impact criminal law.

That’s why I was so intrigued by a recent news story about the legality of a man’s actions in shooting down a privately-owned drone that was hovering over his property. The drone was owned by his neighbor, who had purportedly flown it over the property with the goal of filming new construction that was occurring on the property.

Interestingly, New Jersey police charged the man who shot the drone with possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose and criminal mischief. Certainly he damaged property that didn’t belong to him, but the drone that he damaged was being used to, in essence, spy on people and activities occurring on his land. So although he was certainly at fault, there were also privacy issues that were not addressed that were triggered by the use of the drone to obtain views of people and places that would not otherwise be possible absent the use of the drone.

This issue has already cropped up a number of times this year, including reports this summer of people using drones on beaches to obtain up close and personal views of women sunbathers, much to the consternation of said women. In most cases, the Penal Law has yet to be revised to address this type of privacy violation, although in New York, there have been a number of revisions to the Penal Law to address other types of privacy violations made possible through the use of new surveillance technologies.

For example, New York Penal Law Article 240 has been amended and interpreted in recent years to include communications made using the Internet and cellphones. Likewise, Penal Law Article 250 has been substantially revised to include unlawful surveillance occurring through the use of new and sophisticated technologies and now includes:

250.05 Eavesdropping. (E FELONY)
250.10 Possession of eavesdropping devices. (A MISD)
250.15 Failure to report wiretapping. (B MISD)
250.20 Divulging an eavesdropping warrant. (A MISD)

250.25 Tampering with private communications. (B MISD)
250.30 Unlawfully obtaining communications information. (A MISD)
250.35 Failing to report criminal communications. (B MISD)
250.45 Unlawful surveillance in the second degree. (E FELONY)
250.50 Unlawful surveillance in the first degree. (D FELONY)
250.55 Dissemination of an unlawful surveillance image in the second degree. (A MISD)
250.60 Dissemination of an unlawful surveillance image in the first degree. (E FELONY)

Clearly, the Penal Law recognizes the need to protect people from the increasing ability to capture and disseminate information intended to be kept private—and information that would have stayed private but for the use of sophisticated technologies. Unfortunately the Penal Law has not yet caught up with the use of drones for this purpose, which is undoubtedly why the New Jersey man who shot the drone was charged with crimes, while his neighbor was not.

Certainly the wiser course of action would have been to call the police as opposed to destroying the drone with a gun. But even so, the case raises some interesting questions about the future of privacy and the use of drones for surveillance purposes by both private individuals and governmental entities. Only time will tell how our legislators will react to the increasing use of drones for surveillance purposes. Let’s hope they enact measures designed to limit this type of invasive, unauthorized surveillance because privacy rights are more important than ever in today’s highly technologically advanced world.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and Director of Business Development and Community Relations at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for the modern law firm. She is also a GigaOM Pro Analyst and is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can bereached at niki@mycase.com.


Facebook and First Amendment rights

Stacked3This week's Daily Record column is entitled " Facebook and First Amendment rights." My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Facebook and First Amendment rights

Did you know that a few years ago, the number of times that Americans viewed social media sites per day surpassed pornography site views? When that happens, you know you’ve reached a tipping point!

Reaching that dubious milestone was just one more sign that social media is more than just a fad or a passing fancy. After all, it affects every aspect of our lives, from communication and interaction with loved ones and friends to influencing our purchasing choices and the way that we conduct business.

In other words, social media use has permeated our culture and more than ever before, people are sharing information about all aspects of their lives using social networking sites. Some of these disclosures are broadcast publicly while others are limited to select friends and followers. But whether distributed publicly or to a small circle of friends, online communications via social media sites can sometimes have a sizable offline impact, as was the case in a recent federals appeals court case where online activities intersected with the First Amendment.

One issue in Bland v. Roberts, No. 12-1671, was whether the actions of one of the plaintiff’s — showing support for a political candidate by “liking” his Facebook campaign page — was a “communication” protected by the First Amendment. The case arose when one of the plaintiffs, a sheriff’s deputy, “liked” the Facebook campaign page of a candidate for sheriff who was running against the deputy’s boss. The deputy was fired and subsequently sued his former employer alleging that his termination was in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.

Previously, other courts had considered the issue of whether certain types of online statements made on social media constituted speech and and concluded that they were constitutionally protected speech, but the issue of whether a “like” on Facebook was a “substantive statement” and thus protected was an issue of first impression.

In reaching its decision on this issue, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals examined the nature of a Facebook “like,” explaining that, at its essence, it was a form of communication:

“Once one understands the nature of what Carter did by liking the Campaign Page, it becomes apparent that his conduct qualifies as speech. On the most basic level, clicking on the ‘like’ button literally causes to be published the statement that the User ‘likes’ something, which is itself a substantive statement. In the context of a political campaign’s Facebook  page, the meaning that the user approves of the candidacy whose page is being liked is unmistakable. That a user may use a single mouse click to produce that message that he likes the page instead of typing the same message with several individual key strokes is of no constitutional significance.”

The court then wisely sought out offline comparisons to the online activity of “liking” a Facebook page and concluded that the plaintiff’s Facebook “like” was indeed speech protected by the First Amendment: “In sum, liking a political candidate’s campaign page communicates the user’s approval of the candidate and supports the campaign by associating the user with it. In this way, it is the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard, which the Supreme Court has held is substantive speech.”

In other words, as I’ve repeated time and time again, the medium does not change the message. Online behavior is no different than offline behavior and seeking out the offline corollary for online behavior is the best way to reach appropriate decisions when interpreting 21st century conduct using 20th century precedent. Kudos to the Fourth Circuit for issuing a decision that will withstand the test of time.


Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and Director of Business Development and Community Relations at MyCase, an intuitive cloud-based law practice management platform for the modern law firm. She is also a GigaOM Pro Analyst and is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can be reached at niki@mycase.com.


Are police unlawfully accessing social media accounts?

Stacked3This week's Daily Record column is entitled "Are police unlawfully accessing social media accounts?"

A pdf of the article can be found here and my past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Are police unlawfully accessing social media accounts?

It’s undeniable: social media use has permeated our culture. People are sharing information about all aspects of their lives via social networking sites. Some of these disclosures are broadcast publicly while others are limited to select friends and followers.

This broad scale sharing of information has not gone unnoticed by the legal profession. In past columns I’ve discussed the recent efforts of lawyers to mine social media for evidence, resulting in a number of ethics opinions that attempt to provide guidance and establish ethical boundaries for lawyers as they wade into the electronic minefield of social media.

But, as an attendee asked when I recently spoke at a seminar sponsored by the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office, what about law enforcement? How far can police officers go when seeking to obtain access to social media evidence in order to prove the guilt of an accused?

I thought it was a great question and suggested that it was an issue that the courts would increasingly have to wrestle with as law enforcement stampeded into uncharted social media territory.

And, an example of just such a decision arrived a few weeks later. I received an email from one of the attendees, well-known Rochester criminal defense attorney and prolific author, Gary Muldoon and he advised me of a recent case on point, People v. Munck, 92 A.D.3d 63, 937 N.Y.S.2d 334 (3d Dept. 2011).

One issue addressed by the court in Munck was whether, during a police interrogation, police had unlawfully obtained access to the defendant’s MySpace account. The court briefly addressed the issue, holding that the officer’s conduct was lawful, and cited a New York Court of Appeals decision as the basis for its holding:

“While defendant received oral Miranda warnings, which he agreed to waive, that interview was voluntary and noncustodial, no violation of his rights occurred and he was allowed to leave. Toward the end of the questioning, when Akshar feigned interest in MySpace Web page designs, defendant voluntarily provided his username and password to his accounts and verbally agreed to let Akshar access them. In our view, contrary to defendant’s claim, Akshar did not use impermissible or fundamentally unfair or deceptive tactics to gain access to these accounts  (see People v. Tarsia, 50 N.Y.2d 1, 11, 427 N.Y.S.2d 944, 405 N.E.2d 188 [1980] ).”

Tarsia is a case that delves in depth into the issue of coercion during police questioning. Specifically, the court was tasked with determining whether Tarsia’s consent to allow the police to use a voice stress test during his interrogation was the product of coercion.

In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeals examined the essence of coercion:

“However, while more subtle methods, though sometimes harder to perceive, are equally to be condemned when they trammel on the rights of those in custody … it may take a discerning eye to tell those that are fundamentally unfair from those which are no more than permissible instances in which the police have played the role of ‘midwife to a declaration naturally born of remorse, or relief, or desperation, or calculation’ … In this case, the coerciveness argument derives from the subsidiary claims that defendant was misinformed as to the purpose of the voice stress test … (But) there was no misrepresentation made that the test results could be admissible in a trial against him. Rather, the test was used simply as an investigatory tool … Lieutenant Gaul explained in advance what the signs of stress would be and examined the stress chart in defendant’s presence.”

In other words, the court in Tarsia was focused on the use of coercion to induce a confession of guilt. The defendant understood that the officers were attempting to get him to admit to a crime. He knew why he was being asked to consent to the voice stress test.

However, in Munck, the law enforcement tactics used were far more deceptive. This becomes obvious when, as I always suggest should be done when dealing with the online world, the situation is compared to a similar offline analogy. Here, the officer feigned an interest in Web design in order to obtain access to Munck’s MySpace information. Thus, the tactics used were akin an officer claiming expertise as a book editor and then asking the defendant to disclose the location of his diary so that the officer could review it for purposes of submitting it as a memoir to a book publisher.

The reason the officer request access to Munck’s MyCase password was anything but forthright. The convoluted tactics used were “fundamentally unfair” and “trammeled” on Munck’s rights.

Just because the Internet is still viewed as the “Wild West” doesn’t mean law enforcement officers can ignore the Constitution and run willy nilly over the rights of the accused. Unfortunately, I think Munck sets that precedent. My hope is that over time, as Internet-based tools become more familiar, a new sheriff will come into town (in the form of a decision from another Judicial Department or the Court of Appeals) and will set the record straight.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and the Vice President of Business Development and Community Relations atMyCase, a powerful and intuitive cloud-based law practice management platform. She is also a GigaOM Pro Analyst and is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can be reached at nblack@nicoleblackesq.com. 

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