Monday, March 02, 2009


As Wikipedia explains, in law standing is the “ability of a party to demonstrate to the court sufficient connection to and harm from the law or action challenged to support that party's participation in the case.”

The term has a specific meaning in the context of Fourth Amendment law. As a U.S. District Court explained,
[a] person seeking to exclude evidence allegedly obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment must have standing to challenge the illegal conduct that led to the discovery of the evidence. `[T]o say that a party lacks fourth amendment standing is to say that his reasonable expectation of privacy has not been infringed. . . .’
U.S. v. King, 560 F.Supp.2d 906 (U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California 2008) (quoting U.S. v. Taketa, 923 F.2d 665 (9th Circuit Court of Appeals 1991)).

To establish that he has standing to bring a Fourth Amendment challenge, the person who wants to bring the challenge must prove that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place searched or the item seized. U.S. v. King, supra. As I explained in an earlier post, to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a place or thing, someone must show (i) that he subjectively (personally) believed the place/thing was private and (ii) his belief is one society (objectively) is prepared to accept as reasonable. In that earlier post I gave an example of how this test works in practice.

This post is about a rather unusual Fourth Amendment standing case. The case is U.S. v. King which I quoted earlier. Here – taken from the opinion in U.S. v. King -- is a summary of the facts that led to the Fourth Amendment challenge:

San Francisco Police Sergeant Eastman was investigating Craigslist advertisements for prostitution. He scheduled a “date” at a Quality Inn with a woman named “Stacy,” who said she was 19. The sergeant took other detectives with him when he went to meet “Stacy.” When they got to the Quality Inn, the sergeant called “Stacy” to say he was there; two other detectives checked with the desk clerk, who said “Stacy” was in Room 318. As the officers approached Room 318, they saw a man leaving and suspected he was “a pimp or customer.” When they asked his name, it (King) proved to be the name of the person who rented Room 318; this confirmed their suspicion that he was a pimp.

Two detectives went to Room 318 and knocked on the door. A female who resembled the photo of “Stacy” in the Craigslist ad opened the door. When they saw her, the detectives suspected she was a minor, probably 14 or 15. They entered the room, apparently to conduct what’s known as a protective sweep -- a brief check for people who could threaten officer safety. After they did the protective sweep, the detectives asked Mr. King to come into Room 318; after he came in, one of the detectives blocked to doorway “to prevent entry or exit”.

Sergeant Eastman came to the Room, where he and another detective began to ask “Stacy” how old she was. She said that she was 19 and that King was her “`boyfriend.’” The officers began a series of efforts designed to find out who “Stacy” was and how old she was. As they did that, Sergeant Eastman saw “a laptop computer in plain view on a table.” He “found the laptop significant because prostitutes who work out of hotels often use their laptops to post their ads on Craigslist.” He asked “Stacy” if she used it to post her ads, and she said she did. Sergeant Eastman asked her if the laptop was hers, and she said “yes.” When an officer asked if he could search the laptop, “Stacy” agreed. He found “pictures consistent with those” in the Craigslist ads. The detectives also searched bags in the room, apparently with “Stacy’s” permission. They “found documents related to prostitution activities and a digital camera.”

The officers arrested King and took him to the police station. After booking him, they released him “pursuant to California Penal Code § 849(b)(1), which permits police to release a person who has been subjected to a warrantless arrest when the officer is `satisfied there are insufficient grounds for making a criminal complaint against the person arrested.’” After he was released, King came back to the station and asked for the laptop, saying it was his. Eastman refused to return it because it contained child pornography. Two months later, a San Francisco officer brought all this to the attention of an FBI agent; the resulting investigation showed that “Stacy” “engaged in prostitution at the age of fourteen with King as her pimp.” Based on what they’d found, officers got a warrant and searched King’s home, where they found “a rifle, sexually explicit photos, ammunition, and a digital camera.” As a result, King was indicted for violating 18 U.S. Code § 1591 (sex trafficking of children) and 18 U.S. Code § 2425 (use of interstate facilities to transmit information about a minor).

King moved to suppress the evidence the officers found in the hotel room and the laptop. U.S. v. King, supra. The government argued that he didn’t have standing to challenge the use of the evidence because he didn’t have standing; that is, the government said King didn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in Room 318 of the Quality Inn and/or in the laptop.

The court’s opinion doesn’t outline the government’s argument in detail, but I suspect it went like this: “Stacy” was staying in the hotel room and testified at the suppression hearing that she owned the laptop; since she had access to the room and owned the laptop, she could consent to a search of either or both. (As I explained in an earlier post, the authority to consent to a search is based on access to the property to be searched.) Her ability to consent to a search of both defeated King’s claim that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in either or both, which meant he didn’t have standing to challenge the methods the police used to search both the laptop and the hotel room. U.S. v. King, supra.

The federal district court rather summarily rejected the government’s argument:
The constitution's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures extends to protect the legitimate expectation of privacy of the occupant of a hotel. . . .The fact the room was registered in King's name and that King had not yet checked out is sufficient to establish that King had an expectation of privacy in the hotel room. . . .

Individuals generally possess a reasonable expectation of privacy in their personal computers. . . .`Stacy’ testified that she purchased the laptop, but a defendant who lacks an ownership interest may still have standing to challenge a search upon a showing of `joint control’ or `common authority’ over the property searched. . . . “Stacy” conceded she considered the computer to belong to both she and King, and King has proffered evidence that he shared the computer with “Stacy”, had her permission to use it, used it when he wanted to, and considered the computer as belonging to both he and `Stacy’. Because the government has not rebutted that King used the computer as if it were his own, the Court finds that King exercised joint control over the laptop and that he therefore may challenge the government's search of the computer.
U.S. v. King, supra.

Like many defendants raising a Fourth Amendment issue, King won some and lost some. The court first considered whether the search of the laptop was constitutional:
The question . . . is whether `Stacy’ actually consented to the search. Det. Olsen testified that “Stacy” gave permission to look at the computer. `Stacy’ testified she did not recall giving the officers permission to look at her computer, but did not directly contradict Det. Olsen's testimony. To overcome the government's evidence, King must present some evidence that creates a triable issue as to whether “Stacy” gave consent to search the laptop. An equivocal statement that `Stacy’ cannot recall whether she gave consent is insufficient. Accordingly, the motion to suppress is denied as to the laptop.
U.S. v. King, supra.

The court then considered the search of the bags that produced the digital camera and the documents noted above. It found that because the government could not prove the camera and documents the officers seized were in “Stacy’s’ bags, instead of in one of the bags belonging to King, the government had not met its burden of proving that the items were discovered pursuant to a valid consent search.

“Stacy” may have shared the hotel room and laptop with King (which gave her the authority to consent to a search of either or both), but she apparently did not have access to his bags. If she did not have access to his bags, then she did not have authority to consent to the bags; since the officers did not have a search warrant, their only Fourth Amendment justification for searching King’s bags was consent, which didn’t work. So the court granted King’s motion to suppress the digital camera (and its contents) and the documents the officers found in Room 318.


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Jon Roland said...

It should be pointed out that the doctrine of standing is a recent innovation in law. It was original understanding that any person could pursue a private prosecution of a public right. The milestone case was Frothingham v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447 (1923). It is discussed in The Metaphor of Standing and the Problem of Self-Governance, by Steven L. Winter, 40 Stan. L. Rev. 1371, July, 1988.