Criminal Law

DNA Testing and Death: How Decades-Long Procedural Battles Determine Who Has to Die

Alexa Johnson-Gomez, MJLST Staffer

When individuals convicted of murder claim actual innocence, crime-scene DNA testing has, many times over, been dispositive in proving such innocence. Intuitively, we assume that if someone has been wrongfully convicted, DNA will be the bringer of truth. But what happens when a defendant cannot get their requested DNA testing because the State argues their claim is procedurally defaulted or barred by the statute of limitations?

Reed v. Goertz is a case in the current U.S. Supreme Court term. Petitioner Rodney Reed argues that his due process rights were violated by a refusal to complete DNA testing after he filed post conviction petitions for relief. While the facts are fairly case-specific and relate to Texas criminal procedure, the Court’s holding in this case could have important implications for when the clock starts to run on petitions for crime-scene DNA testing, as well as for death-row claims of actual innocence more generally.

Back in 1998, a Texas court convicted Rodney Reed of the murder of Stacey Stites; the evidentiary basis for this conviction was solely the presence of his sperm.[1] Reed has maintained his innocence since trial, explaining that his sperm was present because he was having a secret, long-standing affair with Stites.[2] At trial, Reed theorized that the murderer might have been the man Stites was engaged to, who was perhaps retaliating against Stites, a white woman, for having an affair with Reed, a Black man.

In 2014, Reed sought post conviction DNA testing under Chapter 64 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. This provision allows a convicted person to obtain post conviction DNA testing of biological material if the court finds that certain conditions are met.[3] The state trial court denied this motion in November 2014, on the grounds that Reed failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he would not have been convicted but for exculpatory results. Reed appealed the denial, and the appellate court remanded for additional fact finding. Then in September 2016, after additional fact finding was done, the state trial court denied the post conviction DNA testing yet again. The appellate court affirmed the denial in April 2017 and denied rehearing in October 2017.

At this stage, Reed filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint against the prosecuting attorney, challenging the constitutionality of Chapter 64 both on its face and as applied to his case.[4] The district court dismissed all of Reed’s claims for failure to state a claim; the Fifth Circuit affirmed in April 2021, stating that Reed’s claim was untimely and that Reed knew or should have known of his injury in November 2014. Generally, time bars in post conviction follow a common principle: if a defendant did know or should have known of a claim, that is the point at which the clock starts running. Defense counsel argues that the clock began to run in October 2017, after Reed exhausted his post conviction appeals fully.

At oral argument on October 11, 2022, the state argued that the clock started prior to the rehearing date in October 2017. Justice Kagan reasoned that it would be simpler to acknowledge we do not know what the authoritative construction of a court of appeals is until appeals are concluded. Justice Jackson agreed, noting that if the federal clock starts while the state appeals process is still ongoing, then the federal courts would have to pause consideration to allow state courts to weigh in first. This would be untenable and overly chaotic. Defense counsel reminded the court of the mounting evidence that points at Reed’s innocence, evidence which is still under review.

While not the hottest topic of this Supreme Court term, this case could still have important implications. While the use of DNA testing to prove actual innocence has been a practice in the world of litigation for the past few decades, cases that have yet to get their post conviction DNA testing done, like Reed’s, often stand in such perilous status because of procedural bars.

A haunting example—the recent execution of Murray Hooper in Arizona. 76 years old at the time of his death, Hooper maintained his innocence until his day of execution.[5] There was never any forensic testing in Hooper’s case that proved he conclusively committed the murders. Hooper’s lawyers filed appeals to get newly discovered evidence considered and forensic testing completed,[6] yet these petitions were all denied.

In theory, post conviction and habeas relief are meant to be reserved for the most deserving of defendants. The courts do not want to allow convicted murderers chance after chance at getting a conviction or sentence overturned, and there is, of course, the presumption that any conviction was right the first time. Yet the high procedural barrier to bringing such claims is not in line with the reality of wrongful convictions. Since 1973, 190 death-row inmates have been exonerated.[7]Post conviction DNA testing is not merely allowing defendants to draw out their appeals process and stave off execution, but is an important scientific tool that can check if the trial court got it right. Preventing petitioners from accessing DNA testing just because of procedural barriers is an injustice, and hopefully the Supreme Court rules as such in Reed v. Goertz.

Notes

[1] Innocence Staff, 10 Facts About Rodney Reed’s Case You Need to Know, Innocence Project (Oct. 11, 2019), https://innocenceproject.org/10-facts-you-need-to-know-about-rodney-reed-who-is-scheduled-for-execution-on-november-20/.

[2] Amy Howe, Justices Wrestle with Statute of Limitations in Rodney Reed’s Effort to Revive DNA Lawsuit, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 11, 2022), https://www.scotusblog.com/2022/10/justices-wrestle-with-statute-of-limitations-in-rodney-reeds-effort-to-revive-dna-lawsuit/.

[3] See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. § 64.03.

[4] Reed v. Goertz, 995 F.3d 425, 428 (5th Cir. 2021).

[5] Liliana Segura, Out of Time, The Intercept (Nov. 15, 2022), https://theintercept.com/2022/11/15/murray-hooper-arizona-execution/.

[6] Associated Press, Lawyers for Murray Hooper File New Appeal as Execution Date Nears, Fox 10 (Nov. 1, 2022),https://www.fox10phoenix.com/news/lawyers-for-murray-hooper-file-new-appeal-as-execution-date-nears.

[7] Innocence, Death Penalty Information Center, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/policy-issues/innocence (last visited Nov. 27, 2022).


“I Don’t Know What To Tell You. It’s the Metaverse—I’ll Do What I Want.” How Rape Culture Pervades Virtual Reality

Zanna Tennant, MJLST Staffer

When someone is robbed or injured by another, he or she can report to the police and hold the criminal accountable. When someone is wronged, they can seek retribution in court. Although there are certainly roadblocks in the justice system, such as inability to afford an attorney or the lack of understanding how to use the system, most people have a general understanding that they can hold wrongdoers accountable and the basic steps in the process. In real life, there are laws explicitly written that everyone must abide by. However, what happens to laws and the justice system as technology changes how we live? When the internet came into widespread public use, Congress enacted new laws new laws to control how people are allowed to use the internet. Now, a new form of the internet, known as the Metaverse, has both excited big companies about what it could mean for the future, as well as sparked controversy about how to adapt the law to this new technology. It can be hard for lawyers and those involved in the legal profession to imagine how to apply the law to a technology that is not yet fully developed. However, Congress and other law-making bodies will need to consider how they can control how people use the Metaverse and ensure that it will not be abused.

The Metaverse is a term that has recently gained a lot of attention, although by no means is the concept new. Essentially, the Metaverse is a “simulated digital environment that uses augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and blockchain, along with concepts from social media, to create spaces for rich user interaction mimicking the real world.” Many people are aware that virtual reality is a completely simulated environment which takes a person out of the real world. On the other hand, augmented reality uses the real-world and adds or changes things, often using a camera. Both virtual and augmented reality are used today, often in the form of video games. For virtual reality, think about the headsets that allow you to immerse yourself in a game. I, myself, have tried virtual reality video games, such as job simulator. Unfortunately, I burned down the kitchen in the restaurant I was working at. An example of augmented reality is PokemonGo, which many people have played. Blockchain technology, the third aspect, is a decentralized, distributed ledger that records the provenance of a digital asset. The Metaverse is a combination of these three aspects, along with other possibilities. As Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist has described it, “the metaverse is a 3D version of the internet and computing at large.” Many consider it to be the next big technology that will revolutionize the way we live. Mark Zuckerberg has even changed the name of his company, Facebook, to “Meta” and is focusing his attention on creating a Metaverse.

The Metaverse will allow people to do activities that they do in the real world, such as spending time with friends, attending concerts, and engaging in commerce, but in a virtual world. People will have their own avatars that represent them in the Metaverse and allow them to interact with others. Although the Metaverse does not currently exist, as there is no single virtual reality world that all can access, there are some examples that come close to what experts imagine the Metaverse to look like. The game, Second Life, is a simulation that allows users access to a virtual reality where they can eat, shop, work, and do any other real-world activity. Decentraland is another example which allows people to buy and sell land using digital tokens. Other companies, such as Sony and Lego, have invested billions of dollars in the development of the Metaverse. The idea of the Metaverse is not entirely thought out and is still in the stages of development. However, there are many popular culture references to the concepts involved in the Metaverse, such as Ready Player One and Snow Crash, a novel written by Neal Stephenson. Many people are excited about the possibilities that the Metaverse will bring in the future, such as creating new ways of learning through real-world simulations. However, with such great change on the horizon, there are still many concerns that need to be addressed.

Because the Metaverse is such a novel concept, it is unclear how exactly the legal community will respond to it. How do lawmakers create laws that regulate the use of something not fully understood and how does it make sure that people do not abuse it? Already, there have been numerous instances of sexual harassments, threats of rape and violence and even sexual assault. Recently, a woman was gang raped in the VR platform Horizon Worlds, which was created by Meta. Unfortunately and perhaps unsurprisingly, little action was taken in response, other than an apology from Meta and statements that they would make improvements. This was a horrifying experience that showcased the issues surrounding the Metaverse. As explained by Nina Patel, the co-founder and VP of Metaverse Research, “virtual reality has essentially been designed so the mind and body can’t differentiate virtual/digital experiences from real.” In other words, the Metaverse is so life-like that a person being assaulted in a virtual world would feel like they actually experienced the assault in real life. This should be raising red flags. However, the problem arises when trying to regulate activities in the Metaverse. Sexually assaulting someone in a virtual reality is different than assaulting someone in the real world, even if it feels the same to the victim. Because people are aware that they are in a virtual world, they think they can do whatever they want with no consequences.

At the present, there are no laws regarding conduct in the Metaverse. Certainly, this is something that will need to be addressed, as there needs to be laws that prevent this kind of behavior from happening. But how does one regulate conduct in a virtual world? Does a person’s avatar have personhood and rights under the law? This has yet to be decided. It is also difficult to track someone in the Metaverse due to the ability to mask their identity and remain anonymous. Therefore, it could be difficult to figure out who committed certain prohibited acts. At the moment, some of the virtual realities have terms of service which attempt to regulate conduct by restricting certain behaviors and providing remedies for violations, such as banning. It is worth noting that Meta does not have any terms of service or any rules regarding conduct in the Horizon Worlds. However, the problem here remains how to enforce these terms of service. Banning someone for a week or so is not enough. Actual laws need to be put in place in order to protect people from sexual assault and other violent acts. The fact that the Metaverse is outside the real world should not mean that people can do whatever they want, whenever they want.


The StingRay You’ve Never Heard of: How One of the Most Effective Tools in Law Enforcement Operates Behind a Veil of Secrecy

Dan O’Dea, MJLST Staffer

One of the most effective investigatory tools in law enforcement has operated behind a veil of secrecy for over 15 years. “StingRay” cell phone tower simulators are used by law enforcement agencies to locate and apprehend violent offenders, track persons of interest, monitor crowds when intelligence suggests threats, and intercept signals that could activate devices. When passively operating, StingRays mimic cell phone towers, forcing all nearby cell phones to connect to them, while extracting data in the form of metadata calls, text messages, internet traffic, and location information, even when a connected phone is powered off. They can also inject spying software into phones and prevent phones from accessing cellular data. StingRays were initially used overseas by federal law enforcement agencies to combat terrorism, before spreading into the hands of the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, and now are actively used by local law enforcement agencies in 27 states to solve everything from missing persons cases to thefts of chicken wings.

The use of StingRay devices is highly controversial due to their intrusive nature. Not only does the use of StingRays raise privacy concerns, but tricking phones into connecting to StingRays mimicking cell phone towers prevent accessing legitimate cell phone service towers, which can obstruct access to 911 and other emergency hotlines. Perplexingly, the use of StingRay technology by law enforcement is almost entirely unregulated. Local law enforcement agencies frequently cite secrecy agreements with the FBI and the need to protect an investigatory tool as a means of denying the public information about how StingRays operate, and criminal defense attorneys have almost no means of challenging their use without this information. While the Department of Justice now requires federal agents obtain a warrant to use StingRay technology in criminal cases, an exception is made for matters relating to national security, and the technology may have been used to spy on racial-justice protestors during the Summer of 2020 under this exception. Local law enforcement agencies are almost completely unrestricted in their use of StingRays, and may even conceal their use in criminal prosecutions by tagging their findings as those of a “confidential source,” rather than admitting the use of a controversial investigatory tool. Doing so allows prosecutors to avoid  battling 4th amendment arguments characterizing data obtained by StingRays as unlawful search and seizure.

After existing in a “legal no-man’s land” since the technology’s inception, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representative Ted Lieu (D-HI) sought to put an end to the secrecy of StingRays through introducing the Cell-Site Simulator Warrant Act of 2021 in June of 2021. The bill would have mandated that law enforcement agencies obtain a warrant to investigate criminal activity before deploying StingRay technology while also requiring law enforcement agencies to delete data of phones other than those of investigative targets. Further, the legislation would have required agencies to demonstrate a need to use StingRay technology that outweighs any potential harm to the community impacted by the technology. Finally, the bill would have limited authorized use of StingRay technology to the minimum amount of time necessary to conduct an investigation. However, the Cell-Site Simulator Warrant Act of 2021 appears to have died in committee after failing to garner significant legislative support.

Ultimately, no device with the intrusive capabilities of StingRays should be allowed to operate free from the constraints of regulation. While StingRays are among the most effective tools utilized by law enforcement, they are also among the most intrusive into the privacy of the general public. It logically follows that agencies seeking to operate StingRays should be required to make a showing of a need to utilize such an intrusive investigatory tool. In certain situations, it may be easy to establish the need to deploy a StingRay, such as doing so to further the investigation of a missing persons case. In others, law enforcement agencies would correctly find their hands tied should they wish to utilize a StingRay to catch a chicken wing thief.


Mind Over Matter: Needed Changes to the Use of Hypnosis in the Criminal Justice System

Jordan Hughes, MJLST Staffer

When most people think of hypnosis today, they imagine stage-show demonstrations and over dramatized mind-tricks. Perhaps they picture people lined up, making ridiculous noises and actions seemingly without control of their own bodies at the behest of an entertainer. Despite such popular images, hypnosis has a wide range of psychological and medical applicability outside of entertainment. Trained professionals have found hypnotherapy useful as a tool to treat pain, depression, phobias, habit disorders, skin conditions, and many other psychological and medical problems. Clinical researchers lament that the public expectations of hypnosis, built up by its use for entertainment and its dramatization in media, make it more difficult to take advantage of a psychological tool that people throughout society could be benefitting from.

One group of people was quick to accept and explore the untapped potential of hypnosis in their work: criminal investigators. In the 1950s, the now partially de-classified MKUltra program began conducting hypnosis experiments on mental health patients, including experiments “hypnotically increasing ability to observe and recall a complex arrangement of physical objects.” This practice was generally considered “experimental” until a highly publicized case in 1976. A bus driver and 26 children were abducted and buried alive; after escaping, a hypnotist helped the bus driver to accurately recall the license-plate numbers on the vans used in the abduction, leading to the apprehension of all three kidnappers. After this case, police departments across the country began using forensic hypnosis as a part of investigations.

Since the 70s and 80s, the scientific validity of forensic hypnosis has been called into question. Studies have revealed that hypnotically recovered memories may be inaccurate, incomplete, or based on a leading suggestion. False memories introduced through hypnosis can be “hardened,” so that subjects cannot distinguish them from genuine memories. Courts have been split on the admissibility of hypnotically enhanced testimony at trial, and are becoming increasingly wary of its use. See Sims v. Hayette, 914 F.3d 1078, 1090 (7th Cir. 2019) (“The concealed hypnosis . . . calls into question everything [the hypnotized witness] said at trial.”).

Despite these hesitations and the scientific backlash, the Department of Justice maintains that there is a use for hypnosis in criminal investigations. According to the DOJ Criminal Resource Manual, while hypnosis should only be used “on rare occasions” and recalled memories should be corroborated, forensic hypnosis is considered an aid that investigators may employ. The DOJ states that hypnosis may be used where there is a “clear need for additional information,” and where hypnosis “can be useful” in aiding a witness’s memory.

Hypnotherapy, as described above, has been found useful in other contexts. And many of those contexts could be of help in the world of criminal justice. The things that make hypnosis dangerous for establishing facts in a court room—a subject’s openness to suggestion and confidence that the hypnosis will work—make the practice valuable in clinical settings.

In the clinical world, the field of hypnotherapy was pioneered by Milton H. Erickson, who founded the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis in 1957. Hypnotherapy has since been found effective as a tool for overcoming narcotic addictions, managing pain, fighting depression, and curing all kinds of anxieties and phobias. Hypnotherapy has also shown promise in helping survivors of domestic and sexual abuse overcome complex PTSD, helping adults to overcome childhood traumas, and providing a means to deal with traumatic grief. Different people are receptive to different types of hypnotic intervention, and trained hypnotherapists are able to tailor their interventions to the individual patient.

Addictions, pain, anxiety and depression, PTSD and other forms of trauma . . . all of these are conditions that are known to influence criminal behavior. A criminal justice system focused on prevention of crime would employ hypnotherapy with a public health approach, exploring the potential of hypnotic interventions to help people mold the physical and psychological conditions that can lead to criminal activity. Instead of featuring it in the DOJ Criminal Resource Manual as an investigation technique, we should be seeing hypnotherapy embraced by the Bureau of Prisons, probation officers, and case managers as a means of creating “correctional facilities” that live up to their name. Unfortunately, the will to explore this tool as a curative measure has not found its way to the prison system.

The problems with where hypnosis is used in the criminal justice system underscores a broader systemic issue. There is an overemphasis in the system on using innovative techniques to catch criminals. Whether a behavioral science that promises to “unlock” memories, or a piece of military tech that allows for dragnet-style spying on unsuspecting civilians, zealous investigators are often keen to employ novel tools to get ahead of the suspects they are after. This is at the expense of innocent civilians, whose constitutional and natural rights are inevitably contravened.

By and large, this desire for innovation has not crept into the world of those focused on helping to rehabilitate past convicts. Over one nine year study, 83% of the state prisoners released were rearrested for committing new crimes. Arrest data tells us that over two-thirds of state drug offenders are rearrested within five years of their release. 24% of sex offenders commit another sex crime with fifteen years of release and a much higher percentage of sex offenders are estimated to recidivate by committing non-sexual crimes that are nonetheless sexually motivated. These high rearrest rates are part of why America has the largest per-capita prison population of any country in the world.

But it does not have to be that way. Hypnotherapy is one of many techniques that, with investment and proper oversight, could prove essential to curing drug addictions and affecting long-term behavioral change. Federal courts in Minnesota have already created a unique one-on-one mentorship program to help rehabilitate offenders as they reenter society. An investment in this and similar programs, and a commitment to developing novel ways of helping people avoid criminal activity, could be the fundamental change that we need in order to see a criminal justice system that does more protecting of our society than punishing it.


The “Circuit Split” That Wasn’t

Sam Sylvan, MJLST Staffer

Earlier this year, the Fourth Circuit punted on an opportunity to determine the constitutional “boundaries of the private search doctrine in the context of electronic searches.” United States v. Fall, 955 F.3d 363, 371 (4th Cir. 2020). The private search doctrine, crafted by the Supreme Court in the 80’s, falls under the Fourth Amendment’s umbrella. The doctrine makes it lawful for law enforcement to “search” something that was initially “searched” by a private third party, because the Fourth Amendment is “wholly inapplicable to a search or seizure, even an unreasonable one, effected by a private individual not acting as an agent of the Government or with the participation or knowledge of any government official.” United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113 (1984).

An illustration: Jane stumbles upon incriminating evidence on John’s laptop that implicates John in criminal activity (the “initial private search”), Jane shows the police what she found on the laptop (the “after-occurring” search), and the rest is history for John. But for law enforcement’s after-occurring search to avoid violating the Fourth Amendment, its search must not exceed the scope of the initial private search. “The critical measures [to determine] whether a governmental search exceeds the scope of the private search that preceded it,” United States v. Lichtenberger, 786 F.3d 478, 485 (6th Cir. 2015), include whether “there was a virtual certainty that nothing else of significance was in the [property subjected to the search]” and whether the government’s search “would not tell [law enforcement] anything more than [it] already had been told” or shown by the private searcher. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. at 119.

Of course, the Supreme Court’s holdings from the 80’s that speak to the scope of the Fourth Amendment are often difficult to reconcile with modern-day Fourth Amendment fact patterns that revolve around law enforcement searches of modern electronic devices (laptops; smartphones; etc.). In the key Supreme Court private search doctrine case, Jacobsen (1984), the issue was the constitutionality of a DEA agent’s after-occurring search of a package after a FedEx employee partially opened the package (upon noticing that it was damaged) and saw a white powdery substance.

Since the turn of the millennium, courts of appeals have stretched to apply Jacobsen to rule on the private search doctrine’s application to, and scope of, law enforcement searches of electronics. In 2001, the Fifth Circuit addressed the private search doctrine in a case where the defendant’s estranged wife took a bunch of floppy disks, CDs, and zip disks from the defendant’s property. She and her friend then discovered evidence of defendant’s criminal activity on those disks while searching some of them and turned the collection over to the police, which led to the defendant’s conviction. United States v. Runyan, 275 F.3d 449 (5th Cir. 2001).

There are two crucial holdings in Runyan regarding the private search doctrine. First, the court held that “the police exceeded the scope of the private search when they examined the entire collection of ‘containers’ (i.e., the disks) turned over by the private searchers, rather than confining their [warrantless] search to the selected containers [that were actually] examined by the private searchers.” Id. at 462. Second, the court held that the “police search [did not] exceed[] the scope of the private search when the police examine[d] more items within a particular container [i.e., a particular disk] than did the private searchers” who searched some part of the particular disk but not its entire contents. Id. at 461, 464. Notably absent from this case: a laptop or smartphone.

Eleven years after Runyan, the Seventh Circuit held that the police did not exceed the scope of the private searches conducted by a victim and her mother. Rann v. Atchison, 689 F.3d 832 (7th Cir. 2012) (relying heavily on Runyan). In Rann, the police’s after-occurring search included viewing images (on the one memory card brought to them by the victim and the one zip drive brought to them by the victim’s mother) that the private searchers themselves had not viewed. Id. Likening computer storage disks to containers (as the Runyan court did), the Rann court concluded “that a search of any material on a computer disk is valid if the private [searcher] viewed at least one file on the disk.” Id. at 836 (emphasis added). But notably absent from this case like Runyan: a laptop or smartphone.

Two years after Rann, the Supreme Court decided Riley v. California—a landmark case where the Court unanimously held that the warrantless search of a cellphone during an arrest was unconstitutional. Specific reasoning from the Riley Court is noteworthy insofar as assessing the Fourth Amendment’s (and, in turn, the private search doctrine’s) application to smartphones and laptops. The Court stated:

[W]e generally determine whether to exempt a given type of search from the warrant requirement by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes upon an individual’s privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests. . . . [Smartphones] are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers. One of the most notable distinguishing features of [smartphones] is their immense storage capacity.

573 U.S. 373, 385, 393 (2014). Riley makes crystal clear that when the property at issue is a laptop or smartphone, the balance between a person’s privacy interests and the governmental interests tips heavily in favor of the individual’s privacy interests. In simpler terms, law enforcement needs a warrant to search a laptop or smartphone unless it has an extremely compelling reason for failing to comply with the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

 

One year after Riley, the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits—armed with Riley’s insights regarding modern electronic devices—decided Lichtenberger and United States v. Sparks, respectively. The two Circuits held that in both cases the police, in conducting their after-occurring warrantless searches of a laptop (Lichtenberger) and a smartphone (Sparks), exceeded the scope of the initial private searches, reaching these conclusions in large part due to Riley. In Lichtenberger, the police exceeded the scope of the initial private search when, without a warrant, they looked at photographs on the laptop that the private searcher had not looked at, despite the private searcher’s initial viewing of other photographs on the laptop. 786 F.3d 478 (6th Cir. 2015). In Sparks, the police exceeded the scope of the initial private search when, without a warrant, they viewed a video within the same album on the smartphone that the private searcher had scrolled through but which the private searcher did not actually view. 806 F.3d 1323 (11th Cir. 2015), overruled on other grounds by United States v. Ross, 963 F.3d 1056 (11th Cir. 2020) (overruling Sparks “to the extent that [Sparks] holds that [property] abandonment implicates Article III standing”).

 

At first glance, Lichtenberger and Sparks seem irreconcilable with Runyan and Rann, leading many commentators to conclude there is a circuit split regarding the private search doctrine: the “container” approach versus the “file”/“narrow” approach. But I disagree. And there is a rather simple explanation for reaching this conclusion—Riley merely heightened Jacobsen’s “virtual certainty” requirement in determining whether law enforcement exceed the scope of initial private searches of laptops and smartphones. In other words, “virtual certainty” is significantly elevated in the context of smartphones and laptops because of the heightened privacy interests at stake stemming from their immense storage capacities and unique qualities—i.e., they contain information and data about all aspects of our lives to a much greater extent than floppy disks, CDs, zip drives, and camera memory cards. Thus, the only apparent sure way for law enforcement to satisfy the private search doctrine’s “virtual certainty” requirement when a laptop or smartphone is involved (and thereby avoid inviting defendants to invoke the exclusionary rule) is to view exactly what the private searcher viewed.

In contrast, the “virtual certainty” requirement in the context of old school floppy disks, CDs, zip drives, and memory cards is quite simply a lower standard of certainty because the balance between privacy interests and legitimate governmental interests is not tipped heavily in favor of privacy interests.

While floppy disks, CDs, and zip drives somewhat resemble “containers,” such as the package in Jacobsen, smartphones and laptops are entirely different Fourth Amendment beasts. Accordingly, the four cases should all be analyzed through the lens that the particular electronic device at issue in each case is most significant because it guides the determination of whether the after-occurring search fell within the scope of the initial private search. Looking at the case law this way makes it so that it is not the container approach versus the file approach. Rather, it is (justifiably) the container approach for certain older electronic storage devices and the file approach for modern electronic devices that implicate weightier privacy concerns.


“Open up it’s the police! . . . And Jeff Bezos?”

Noah Cozad, MJLST Staffer

Amazon’s Ring company posted a series of Instagram posts around Halloween, including a video of children trick or treating, and statistics about how many doorbells were rang on the night.  What was probably conceived as a cute marketing idea, quickly received backlash. It turns out people were not enamored by the thought of Ring watching their children trick or treat.  This is not the first time Ring’s ads have drawn criticism. In June of this year, social media users noticed that Ring was using images and footage from their cameras in advertisements. The posts included pictures of suspects, as well as details of their alleged crimes. Ring called these “Community Alerts.” Customers, it seems, have agreed to exactly this use of data. In Ring’s terms of service agreement, customers grant Ring the ability to “use, distribute, store .  . . and create derivative works from such Content that you share through our Service.”

The backlash to Ring’s ads gets to a deeper concern about the Amazon company and its technology: the creation of a massive, privately owned surveillance network. Consumers have good reason to be wary of this. It’s not fully understood what exactly Ring does with the images and videos this network creates. Earlier this year, it was reported that Ring allegedly gave their Ukrainian R&D team unlimited access to every video and image created by any Ring camera. And Ring allegedly allowed engineers and executives unlimited access to some customers cameras as well, including Ring’s security cameras made for indoor use. Ring has denied these allegations. There are not many specifics, but the company is said to have “minimum security standards” in general, and appears not to encrypt the storage of customer data. Though data is now encrypted “in transit.”

The legal and civil rights concerns from this technology all seem to come to a head with Ring’s partnerships with local police departments. Six hundred plus police departments, including the Plymouth and Rochester departments, have partnered with Ring. Police departments encourage members of their community to buy Ring, and Ring gives police forces potential access to camera footage. The footage is accessed through a request to the customer, which can be denied, otherwise, police usually require a warrant to force Ring to hand over the footage. California departments though allege they have been able to sidestep the customer, and simply threaten Ring with a subpoena for the footage. If true, there is effectively little stopping Ring from sharing footage with police. Ring has claimed to be working hard to protect consumers privacy but has not answered exactly how often they give police footage without the approval of the customer or a warrant.

How legislatures and regulators handle this massive surveillance network and its partnerships with law enforcement is up in the air at this point. Despite continual backlash to their services, and 30 civil rights groups speaking out against Ring’s corporate practices, there has been little movement on the Federal level it seems, besides a letter from Senator Markey (D-Mass) to Amazon demanding more information on their services. Recently, Amazon replied to Senator Markey, which shed some light on how police can receive and use the data. Amazon stated that police can request 12 hours of footage from any device within a 0.5 mile radius of the crime. Amazon further stated that it does not require police to meet any evidentiary standard before asking for footage.

Despite the relative lack of governmental action currently, it is almost assured some level of government will act on these issues in the near future. For now, though, Ring continues to expand its network, and along with it, concerns over due process, privacy, and law enforcement overreach.


Keeping Pace with Crimes in Space

Katherin Nixon, MJLST Staffer

At the end of August, something peculiar happened. Something extraterrestrial. No, NASA did not discover aliens on Mars (although that would have been peculiar and extraterrestrial too). Instead, the first crime was allegedly committed in Space—by a human being. Anne McClain was on a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station (“ISS”) when she accessed her estranged spouse’s bank account using NASA’s computer network. McClain has since been accused of identity theft and improper access to private financial records. Regardless of her innocence or guilt, this raises two important issues for law-oriented earthlings: (1) what laws govern Space; and (2) who has jurisdiction?

Among the laws that govern Space, two are especially noteworthy in this case. According to Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, “A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body.” This would seem to suggest the United States maintains jurisdiction in this case. But, it is important to remember the crime was committed aboard the ISS. On January 29, 1998, fifteen governments came together to sign the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (“IGA”). As the name indicates, this agreement governs all things ISS. Article 22 of the IGA states, “Canada, the European Partner States, Japan, Russia, and the United States may exercise criminal jurisdiction over personnel in or on any flight element who are their respective nationals.” Since McClain is a United States citizen—and the alleged crime was committed against another United States citizen—the United States has jurisdiction over this case.

However, what if the crime was committed against say—a Japanese citizen or a Russian citizen? This is the entry point for a black hole. Consider this hypothetical offered by Michelle Hanlon, professor of air and space law at the University of Mississippi: “Astronaut A from Country A stole a watch from Astronaut B from Country B, and it happened in a part of the ISS that belonged to Country C.” (Doesn’t this feel like the Space version of Civil Procedure?) In that situation, the IGA would require the different countries to come together in order to discuss their prosecutorial interests. Assuming the three countries could come to an agreement on whose jurisdiction governs, there would not be much of an issue.

Traveling further down the black hole, what happens when Space tourism takes off? With Space tourism, the discussion would involve private citizens and private companies instead of government employees and government entities. As noted by Loren Grush and The Verge, “[I]f someone from the U[nited] S[tates] gets hurt on a private Japanese space hotel, along with other passengers from Spain and Singapore, it’s unclear exactly how to proceed.” The Outer Space Treaty would likely be the start. Yet, countries with companies interested in Space tourism should come together to discuss a new agreement. The new agreement could be modeled after the IGA, but should include an added level of specificity.

As it turns out, keeping pace with crimes in space will be no easy task. Luckily, this will not be a pressing issue anytime in the near future. For now, it is an interesting thing to ponder as our presence in Space grows. The McClain case—despite its relative simplicity—serves as a preview for the more complicated cases that will eventually come.


Access Denied: Fifth Amendment Invoked to Prevent Law Enforcement from Accessing Phone

Hunter Moss, MJLST Staffer 

Mobile phones are an inescapable part of modern life. Research shows that 95% of Americans carry some sort of cell phone, while 77% own smartphones. These devices contain all sorts of personal information, including: call logs, emails, pictures, text messages, and access to social networks. It is unsurprising that the rise of mobile phone use has coincided with an increased interest from law enforcement. Gaining access to a phone could provide a monumental breakthrough in a criminal investigation.

Just as law enforcement is eager to rummage through a suspect’s phone, many individuals hope to keep personal data secret from prying eyes. Smartphone developers use a process called encryption to ensure their consumers’ data is kept private. In short, encryption is a process of encoding data and making it inaccessible without an encryption key. Manufacturers have come under increasing pressure to release encryption keys to law enforcement conducting criminal investigations. Most notable was the confrontation between the F.B.I. and Apple in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting. A magistrate judge ordered Apply to decrypt the shooter’s phone. The tech giant refused, stating that granting the government such a power would undermine the security, and the privacy, of all cellphone users.

The legal theory of a right to privacy has served as the foundation of defenses against government requests for cellphone data. These defenses have been couched in the Fourth Amendment, which is the Constitutional protection guaranteeing security against unreasonable searches. In a ruling that will have profound implications for the future of law enforcement, the Fourth Amendment protection was first extended to mobile phone data when the Supreme Court decided Carpenter v. United States in early 2018. The holding in Carpenter necessitates that warrants are granted during any government investigation seeking to obtain mobile phone records from service providers.

A case from Florida was the most recent iteration of a novel legal theory to shield smartphone users from government encroachment. While the Carpenter decision relied on the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy, last week’s ruling by the Florida Court of Appeals invokes the Fifth Amendment to bar law enforcement agents from compelling suspects to enter their passcodes and unlocking their phones. This evolution of the Fifth Amendment was grounds for the court to quash a juvenile court’s order for the defendant to reveal his password, which would relinquish the privacy of his phone.

The Fifth Amendment is the constitutional protection from self-incrimination. A suspect in a criminal case cannot be compelled to communicate inculpatory evidence. Because a phone’s passcode is something that we, as the owners, “know,” being forced to divulge the information would be akin to being forced to testify against oneself. While mobile phone users might feel relieved that the development of Fifth Amendment is expanding privacy protections, smartphone owners shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate. While the Fifth Amendment might protect what you “know,” it does not protect what you “are.” Several courts have recognized that the police may unlock a phone using a suspect’s fingerprint or facial recognition software. Given that fingerprinting and mug shots are already routine procedures during an arrest, courts have been reluctant to view unlocking a phone in either manner as an additional burden on suspects.

Technology has seen some incredible advancements over the last few years, particularly in the field of mobile devices. Some have even theorized that our phones are becoming extensions of our minds. The legal framework providing constitutional protections supporting the right to privacy and the right against self-incrimination have trailed the pace of these developments. The new string of cases extending the Fifth Amendment to cellphone searches is an important step in the right direction. As phones have become a ubiquitous part of modern life, containing many of our most private and intimate information, it is clear that the law must continue to evolve to ensure that they are safeguarded from unwanted and unlimited government intrusion.


Ensuring Quality And Avoiding Bad Eggs: Food Executives, Food Safety And Criminal Sanctions

MJLST Guest Blogger, Tommy Tobin

[Editor’s Note: This post is last and #4 in a series on current FDA issues. You can find the previous post herehere and here.]

Food can—and all too often does—make people sick. Anyone who has suffered from food-borne illness would be unlikely to want to repeat the experience. The safety of our food relies in large part on compliance with food safety protocols. From Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to today, the processing and manufacturing of food is rife with stories of poor practices leading to public health problems.

Maintaining the safety of the nation’s food supply is an ongoing challenge for regulators and businesses. The FDA requires that food be processed or produced using good manufacturing practices, or else risk food being labeled “adulterated” as it was produced under “unfit” conditions. Producing food in such a way as to avoid being “contaminated with filth” seems like a worthwhile goal.

Ensuring food safety sometimes means throwing away product, but it can be a matter of life and death. For example, Listeria concerns prompted Blue Bell Ice Cream to remove all of its product from store shelves in 2015. Three deaths were reported from the ice cream. In the midst of its food safety issues, Chipotle closed all locations across the US on February 8, 2016 to focus improving food safety protocols.

What happens when individuals upend the delicate balance of food safety? In the wake of several high-profile trials, food executives charged with food safety violations may be walking on eggshells. As Food Safety News put it, “Not so long ago, errant food industry managers and executives did not have to worry about going to jail. But they do now.”

What changed? In part, peanut butter, cantaloupe, and eggs. These products might seem like an unlikely combination, but these foods—or rather some of the companies behind them—demonstrate the “New Normal” in food safety enforcement.

Taking peanut butter first, a nationwide Salmonella outbreak sickened hundreds of Americans and killed nine. Stewart Parnell, the executive behind the Peanut Corporation of America, approved shipments of peanut butter that his company had tested positive for Salmonella and those that were known to be “partially covered in dust and rat crap.” Instead of jettisoning product for public safety, he instead demanded, over email, that “[expletive deleted], just ship it. I can’t afford to loose [sic] another customer.” According to the Washington Post, prosecutors sought a life sentence, but he was ultimately sentenced for 28 years. One man, quoted by the Post, whose mother had died due to the peanut butter said, “As far as I’m concerned, he’s a murderer.”

As for cantaloupe, Eric and Ryan Jensen—two Colorado brothers—pled guilty to six counts arising from their role in a 2011 Listeria outbreak. According to the FDA, the Jensen brothers knew they were putting the public at risk by not sufficiently washing their produce and maintaining the fruit in “unsanitary conditions.” As a result, the deadly cantaloupes were linked to 147 hospitalizations and 33 deaths. You read that right; 33 lives were ended due to contaminated cantaloupe.

With regard to eggs, the DeCosters of Quality Egg, LLC may have presented the courts with the most significant responsible corporate officer liability ruling in over forty years, according to the venerable FDA Law Blog. Jack DeCoster and his son Peter, the owner and COO of the company, respectively, were sentenced to three month’s imprisonment for their part in food safety outbreaks that caused an estimated 56,000 Americans to fall ill.

As noted in the Eighth Circuit opinion upholding the prison sentence, the company pled guilty to bribing a food safety inspector and introducing misbranded and adulterated eggs into interstate commerce. The opinion details the conditions at Quality Egg’s Iowa operations in August 2010:

The FDA inspected the Quality Egg operations in Iowa from August 12–30, 2010. Investigators discovered live and dead rodents and frogs in the laying areas, feed areas, conveyer belts, and outside the buildings. They also found holes in the walls and baseboards of the feed and laying buildings. The investigators discovered that some rodent traps were broken, and others had dead rodents in them. In one building near the laying hens, manure was found piled to the rafters; it had pushed a screen out of the door which allowed rodents into the building. Investigators also observed employees not wearing or changing protective clothing and not cleaning or sanitizing equipment.

The FDA concluded that Quality Egg had failed to comply with its written plans for biosecurity and salmonella prevention. One government expert reported that “there were minimal to no records from the poultry [ ] barns to indicate that company personnel [had] implemented the written plans [to eliminate salmonella].” The agency also discovered that the company’s eggs tested positive for salmonella at a rate of contamination approximately 39 times higher than the current national rate, and that the contamination had spread throughout all of the Quality Egg facilities. In October 2010 the FDA instructed Quality Egg to euthanize every hen, remove the manure, repair its facilities, and disinfect its barns to prevent the risk of another outbreak.

As responsible corporate officers, the DeCosters pled guilty to misdemeanor violations of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). In their plea agreements, they stipulated that they “had not known that the eggs were contaminated at the time of shipment, but stipulated that they were in positions of sufficient authority to detect, prevent, and correct the sale of contaminated eggs had they known about the contamination.”

An important question before the Eighth Circuit panel was the requisite knowledge required for imposing criminal penalties, particularly imprisonment, on responsible corporate officials. In the cantaloupe and peanut butter cases reviewed above, each executive knew of food safety violations, but the record in this case did not reveal that the DeCosters had actual knowledge. The three judge DeCoster panel issued a three-opinion ruling, with the majority advancing a concept of responsible corporate officer liability arising from the FDCA and the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Park, 421 U.S. 658 (1975). Under Park, responsible corporate officials were prosecuted under a lower standard than normally used for criminal cases, whether under theories of negligence or strict liability.

The DeCoster majority noted that the FDCA and Park enabled criminal sanctions for responsible corporate officials for their own failure to prevent or remedy the conditions giving rise to the food safety claim. The judges in the majority agreed that vicarious liability was not applicable here, instead it was the executives’ own duty to be aware of, to prevent, and to address potential violations of the FDCA that gave rise to criminal penalties. Writing in concurrence, Judge Gruender reasoned that the DeCosters “are responsible for their own failures to exercise reasonable care to prevent the introduction of adulterated food.” In the absence of actual knowledge, the DeCoster majority ascribed constructive knowledge to the DeCosters in running their operation. They “knew or should have known” of the unsanitary conditions and failed to address or prevent them.

Writing in dissent, Judge Beam reasoned that the DeCoster’s sentence was inappropriate. Judge Beam would reject negligence as an appropriate standard for corporate officer liability under the FDCA, substituting a mens rea requirement similar to that found elsewhere in criminal law. The dissent noted, “there is no precedent that supports imprisonment without establishing some measure of a guilty mind on the part of these two individuals, and none is established in this case” and that “no person associated with Quality Egg had knowledge of salmonella contamination at any relevant time.”

Given the three-opinion decision, the DeCoster case was appealed for an en banc rehearing within the Eighth Circuit, which was denied in September 2016. Petition for certiorari was filed in January 2017, and the case may make it to the Supreme Court.

Public health requires vigilance, especially on the part of those involved with producing and processing the nation’s food supply. The FDA and other food safety regulators work with businesses to maintain public health and safety. Unfortunately, all too often there are bad eggs whose decisions, or lack of awareness, may put the public at risk. Time will tell whether the Supreme Court weighs in on the proper standard for criminal liability for food safety violations in the wake of several recent high-profile cases.


En-Chantix: Smoking Cessation & Involuntary Intoxication

MJLST Guest Blogger, Tommy Tobin

[Editor’s Note: This post is #2 in a series on current FDA issues. You can find the previous post here.]

Smoking cessation is a difficult process. To assist patients in the process, many physicians are turning to Chantix (Varenicline), which is advertised as the nation’s #1 prescribed prescription anti-smoking medication. Health professionals have lauded the product as a useful adjunct to other methods of smoking cessation treatment and over 10 million Americans have received prescriptions for the drug.

After the introduction of Chantix into the market, reports of adverse events, including potentially serious neuropsychiatric effects, prompted the FDA to issue a black box warning in 2009 for the drug. In 2014, McClatchy reported that Pfizer, Chantix’s manufacturer, had paid at least $299 million to settle civil claims regarding the drug and its alleged neuropsychiatric effects. In December 2016, the FDA approved the removal of this black box warning. While these events certainly are of interest to drug manufacturers and regulators, they also have surprising implications for criminal law.

What if your anti-smoking drug led you to commit a violent crime? Could you convince a jury that the anti-smoking pill made you do it? That is precisely the question posed by some criminal defendants across the country.

Involuntary intoxication can be an affirmative defense for criminal offenses, and this defense is recognized as a complete defense. As a complete defense, the court recognizes that the defendant committed the action alleged but absolves the accused of criminal responsibility due to the circumstances surrounding the commission of the crime.  While standards for this defense vary, criminal defendants alleging such a defense generally claim that they were intoxicated and that this intoxication was not the result of their voluntary action. Many courts apply the same standard as in an insanity defense, which asks whether the intoxicated defendant became unable to distinguish right from wrong.

In one high-profile case, an American soldier repeatedly stabbed and brutally murdered another soldier at Fort Benning, Georgia. The defendant in this case, United States v. MacDonald, was taking Chantix and claimed that he should have been afforded an involuntary intoxication instruction at trial. The US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ruled that the lower court had a sua sponte duty to instruct on the defense of involuntary intoxication, finding that it was error to fail to provide a separate and distinct involuntary intoxication instruction in such a case. The MacDonald defendant was granted a rehearing, whereupon his sentence was decreased from life without parole to 45 years with credit for time served pursuant to a plea deal. The case went up on appeal on January 27, 2017 and was affirmed.

In another case, a Maryland man invoked Chantix when he was accused of attempting to kill his wife. As reported in the Washington Post, the man shot his wife and tried to get a second shot off but the gun malfunctioned. At trial, he claimed that Chantix caused an internal imbalance of chemicals, resulting in involuntary intoxication. The judge agreed and ordered that he be released. The local paper reported that a small protest followed the Maryland order, with protestors carrying signs that read “Abusers blame victims, Judges blame Chantix.”

When defendants allege a so-called “Chantix defense,” it is far from a sure thing. Providing a court with evidence in addition to conclusory allegations may improve the chances of a favorable finding.  For example, a Florida man argued with his father and shortly thereafter killed him. Subsequent to the murder, the man called 911 attempting to blame a non-existent intruder. According to the court, the “Chantix defense” was considered but ultimately rejected by the defense counsel. After trial, the man brought a prisoner litigation action. In rejecting the suit, the court concluded, inter alia, that “even if a reasonable juror could find that Chantix rage exists,” the prisoner had presented no evidence that he was so affected.

As noted in the Washington Post, involuntary intoxication is not a new defense but it is being invoked with increasing success nationwide. While the FDA recently removed Chantix’s black box warning, the “Chantix defense” demonstrates the fascinating interplay between FDA law and criminal law. It remains to be seen just how much the defense bar will incorporate this defense into clients’ strategies.