Pocket Dials and Fourth Amendment Rights: Where is the Line Drawn?

Efrain Alvarado III

2/19/17

The Sixth Circuit Court case Huff v. Spaw (2015) dealt with, among other issues, the ramifications that older legislation such as the Federal Wiretap Act (Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968) might have on modern day society. The goal of the  Federal Wiretap Act was to prevent unlawful interceptions of private individuals’ communications by the government, but it also established the right of law enforcement to use approved legitimate wiretap technologies. In Huff  v. Spaw, a pocket dial made by James Huff to Carol Spaw (Executive Assistant to the CEO whom Huff was speculating about firing) led to an interesting application of the Fourth Amendment’s “plain view” doctrine as well as the Federal Wiretap Act. In the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, Huff filed a complaint against Spaw (who transcribed and partially recorded the 89 minute pocket dial), citing a use of wire and oral communications that was in violation of Title III. However, since an “oral communication” only receives Title III protection if made with an objectively reasonable expectation that it would not be intercepted, the court ruled that since Huff had no reasonable expectation that a Title III violation could not have occurred in this instance.

When the case reached the Sixth Circuit, Judge Boggs only partially affirmed the Eastern District of Kentucky Court’s ruling; Boggs and his fellow judges concluded that Huff did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy that would bolster the legitimacy of the Title III violation he brought to the court against Spaw, though they did seek to determine the legality of Spaw’s recording of Huff’s pocket dial. They cited the “plain view” doctrine of the Fourth Amendment to say that Huff, because he did not have some sort of lock or security measure on his phone to prevent such unwanted pocket dials, had no privacy interest by which he could invoke Title III in his claim against Spaw. Huff’s situation regarding his failure to secure his phone to prevent such calls was akin to him leaving himself exposed, and the Court found that because of this he had no reasonable expectation of privacy as it related to Spaw recording his conversation as a result of him pocket dialing her.

Huff v. Spaw, which involves two citizens rather than the government and another citizen, set a somewhat troubling precedent for future cases dealing with modern-day interpretations of Title III. The plaintiff in this case, Huff, accidentally pocket dialed Spaw and was unwittingly recorded. The Sixth Circuit Court’s finding emphasized the fact that because Huff did not lock his phone and/or download an application designed to prevent pocket dials, he was exposed and Spaw was therefore legally permitted to record his mistaken call to her. This essentially means that if one doesn’t lock their cellphone, they are deemed by this precedent as leaving themselves exposed to unwanted surveillance, and are not protected by the Fourth Amendment or Title III. Seeing how Title III was enacted long before the advent of computers and technologically advanced smartphones, isn’t it time for this doctrine to be updated to reflect the state of affairs in today’s society? The fact that the vast majority of people own a smartphone today should have been an indicator to the Sixth Circuit Court that this policy is in dire need of modernizing. Additionally, this ruling didn’t even address the fact that one can accidentally unlock their phone without realizing it; would someone in that situation be entitled to protection under Title III? As is sometimes the case in Court, things actually may have become less clear as a result of the Huff v. Spaw ruling.

Huff v. Spaw. (2016, March 10). Retrieved February 17, 2017, from http://harvardlawreview.org/2016/03/huff-v-spaw/

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