The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant prior to searching an individual’s personal effects or seizing their property. The warrant must demonstrate probable cause to believe that the search or seizure will reveal evidence related to a criminal investigation. These protections apply both to a person’s physical effects, such as documents and other materials, and to their “electronically stored information” (ESI). The extent to which a warrant may allow law enforcement to search and seize ESI is still a matter of dispute. A federal judge issued a ruling in late 2016 that seems to grant broad powers to law enforcement to seize ESI. The court found that the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and the Stored Communications Act (SCA) required a provider of email services to turn over the entire contents of several email accounts. In re Microsoft Corp., No. 2:16-mj-08036, mem. order (D. Kan., Sep. 28, 2016).
At the time the Fourth Amendment was drafted and ratified in the 18th century, people’s personal effects mostly consisted of materials that they kept on their person or in their residence. This remained true for nearly two centuries, until computers became widespread, and people began using third-party internet service providers (ISPs) to communicate. Private communications, which enjoy the Fourth Amendment’s protection from warrantless searches and seizures, may now reside on servers maintained by ISPs, with the owner of those communications having the right to access them.
The third-party doctrine, which holds that information voluntarily disclosed to others is no longer protected by the Fourth Amendment, would seem to make communications stored by ISPs accessible to law enforcement—this seems to fit the letter of that particular doctrine, if not its spirit. The SCA attempts to reconcile the use of third-party ISPs with the Fourth Amendment, establishing requirements for warrants issued to ISPs. 18 U.S.C. § 2703. Procedural rules also address warrants for ESI. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(e)(2)(B).