With the election of Donald Trump, liberals have worried that Supreme the Court would swing against personal liberties and toward a tough-on-crime approach. But the 2017-2018 term proves that sometimes ideologically conservative justices can come out in favor of defendant rights. Indeed, Antonin Scalia, one of the court’s most conservative justices, singlehandedly recovered the Confrontation Clause in Crawford v. Washington, Davis v. Washington, Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts and Bullcoming v. New Mexico.
In Carpenter v. United States, the Court held that individuals have a privacy interest in the cell phone location data, and that a search warrant supported by probable cause is required before law enforcement can examine these records. The Court noted that in exigent circumstances – e.g., an ongoing kidnapping – the police can lawfully access GPS location data.
The decision is a important, although narrow, advance. Historically, the Court had declared that if a person voluntarily subscribed to a service in which billing, location, or other information was collected by a service provider, the person had given up his privacy rights and the Government’s warrantless access to such information was permissible.
But the Court has clearly become concerned about the amount of information that third-parties possess regarding individuals, including information that exists in the cloud, location data, and usage data. Carpenter v. United States begins to limit what the Government can obtain without a warrant.
In Byrd v. United States, the Court was asked to consider whether a driver of a rental car who is not listed on the rental agreement can assert the Fourth Amendment against law enforcement officers searching the car. The Government contended that because Terrence Byrd was not listed on the rental agreement, he had no reasonable expectation of privacy because the car was being rented by him.
The Court held that Byrd had a reasonable expectation of privacy even though he was not listed on the rental agreement because, as against others, he was the lawful possessor of the vehicle.
In Class v. United States, the Supreme Court held that a guilty plea, by itself, doesn’t prevent a defendant from challenging the constitutionality of a statute. However, the Supreme Court did hold that an explicit appellate waiver can prevent a defendant from challenging the constitutionality of a law. In the Eastern District of North Carolina, the prosecution almost always requires an appeal waiver if the person wishes to plead guilty pursuant to a plea agreement. Therefore, if a defendant believes that the statute may be unconstitutional, a defendant would either need to take the case to trial (and lose) or plead guilty without the benefit of a plea agreement, and then file a notice of appeal.
In Sessions v. Dimaya, the Supreme Court held that definition of “violent felony” in the 18 U.S.C. §16(b), part of immigration law, is unconstitutionally vague. The decision in Sessions v. Dimaya was not unexpected given the 2015 in United States v. Johnson which struck down the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act.