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Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

Privacy is defined as "the expectation that confidential personal information disclosed in a private place will not be disclosed to third parties, when that disclosure would cause either embarrassment or emotional distress to a person of reasonable sensitivities". 

Reasonable expectation of privacy is an issue dealing with the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.  In the constitution the Fourth Amendment known as "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."  To learn more about the Fourth Amendment click here.  Expectation of privacy is defined as the belief in the existence of freedom from unwanted governmental intrusion of personal property, house, or persons.  Expectation of privacy is similar but not the same thing as right of privacy. 

There are two different types of reasonable expectation of privacy, subjective expectation of privacy and objective, legitimate or reasonable expectation of privacy.  Subjective expectation of privacy is the opinion of someone that a certain event or occurrence is private whereas objective, legitimate, or reasonable expectation of privacy is a generalized idea of privacy known by society.  A person may not have an expectation of privacy in public places except a ones residence, hotel room, in a place of business, public restroom, private portions of a jailhouse, and or a phone booth.  A personal vehicle is known as a subjective expectation of privacy, but does not always fall under the category of objective expectation of privacy, like a house. 

The expectation of privacy plays a crucial part when deciding if a search and seizure is a correct or incorrect.  In order to follow the Fourth Amendment, the US congress has come up with a two part test to help make a decision if a search and seizure is appropriate.  The two circumstances of the test are; (1) governmental action must take into consideration the individual's subjective expectation of privacy and (2) the expectation of privacy must be reasonable, in that society agrees and recognizes it.        

Since the Fourth Amendment was written way before any kind of technology with memory capabilities, the law has adapted and caught up with the times.  Surviellance equipment has recently diminished the expectation of privacy.  With today's technology, we can watch and predict criminals next moves.  Also, we can find out information about a person and look up background and history information.

Computer and internet users are constantly logging their history onto their hard drives.  Government forces can retrieve this information and use it in a trial if needed.  E-mails, e-mail addresses, IP addresses, and websites are all recorded and could be searched.  Today, the Federal courts agree that the sender of an e-mail has an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in the content of a message while it is in transmission.

Katz v. United States

In 1967 Charles Katz was using a public telephone booth to transfer illegal gambling wager from Los Angeles to Boston and Miami.  Unaware, Katz's conversations were being recorded by the FBI using a "eavesdropping device attached to the exterior of the phone booth".  Katz was tried and convicted because of the recordings.  He fought back with the argument, that the recordings were collected in a manner violating his Fourth Amendment.  The court ruled in favor of the FBI because there was no physical intrusion into the telephone booth.  This case was ruled as a certiorari, which is when a higher court makes a decision, most of the time lower courts will makes it decision similarly to what the higher court has ruled (the higher court sets the bar).        

Issues with the case

Do public telephone booths fall under the right to privacy?

Is a physical investigation required when "searching" the booth?


The court ruled in favor of Katz, 7-1.  Because it was a private conversation in a public place, there must be a search warrant.  It was stated that a booth is like a home where one can do what they please without the world knowing.  After this case, it was ordered that government wiretapping by both state and federal authorities must follow and meet the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirements. 


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