Thursday, May 30, 2013

Federalism, search warrants, and cloud-based email: Correcting a false meme

There's a meme spreading in national coverage of Texas' legislation requiring warrants for email that needs quashing. At the National Journal, Brian Fung wrote that, "The Texas bill can't override ECPA [the Electronic Communications Privacy Act]; it can only change the way the state deals with lower-level cases. But it would set a high-profile example." Then, Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing wrote that, "The Texas law is somewhat symbolic (since it won't stop Fed snooping), but it's still an important step toward establishing a better norm in privacy standards for files on cloud-based services."

The idea that this bill is "symbolic" or only applies in "lower-level cases" couldn't be further from the truth. Grits replied thusly to Doctorow in the comments:
No, no no! Not symbolic at all! The overwhelming number of prosecutions including for the most serious cases like murder, sexual assault, child abuse, etc., all take place in STATE courts. The new warrant requirement applies in all those cases, which means it applies in most criminal cases in Texas, by a longshot. Ask your friends at EFF-Austin about it, they were part of the Texas Electronic Privacy Coalition that promulgated and helped pass the bill. States get to establish their own rules of criminal procedure with SCOTUS rulings and federal law as a floor, so the law headed to Perry covers every state and local cop in Texas, which means peace officers at more than 2,600 agencies.
Let's be clear: Texas and other states get to set their own search-warrant standards as long as they don't go below floors set by the US Supreme Court. Beyond that, federal criminal procedure applies to federal agents - the FBI, DHS, etc.. It doesn't necessarily govern how states handle criminal cases in their own jurisdictions. In this case, however, Texas law currently incorporates the ECPA statute by reference. What the Stickland amendment to HB 2268 did was to delete the sections of Texas' statute that incorporated ECPA, instead insisting that a warrant will always be required for state and local government to access cloud-based email, no matter how old, and whether opened, unopened, or in draft form.

Texas law doesn't apply to the FBI or other federal agencies operating here, but it does apply to state and local cops from the Texas Rangers to the lowliest two-man PD, every county sheriff, and Texas state agencies. In 2011, there were 256,664 felony cases processed in Texas state district courts according to the Office of Court Administrate (see here, p. 8 - add appointed and retained counsel totals).

By contrast, in the fiscal year ending August 2012, federal courts processed 94,121 cases nationwide, with just a fraction of them in Texas (see here, subtract civil cases from the total). In fact, in Texas the feds have been doing fewer traditional criminal cases because the Southern and Western Districts in particular have been overwhelmed with immigration cases, a situation exacerbated by the US Senate's inexplicable delays approving judicial appointments.

All this to say, the warrants for email legislation would apply in the overwhelming majority of criminal investigations in Texas, including in the most "serious" cases. The hundreds of people on Texas death row, for example, all got there via Texas state courts. The bill is not "symbolic," nor does it only apply to minor cases. It's an expression of federalism - the laboratory of the states - and it would be virtually a snub to his beloved Tenth Amendment for Gov. Perry to veto it.


doran said...

Grits, you point out that the new legislation does not apply to federal law enforcement, only to state LEOs.

Have you any suggestion as to what the outcome might be, on a motion to quash, if the Feds get a search warrant from a federal magistrate, which a state LEO could not get from a state judge, and then hand over the incriminating fruits of the search to state prosecutors?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Above my pay grade, Doran. I suppose one day we may find out.

rodsmith said...

sounds to me like you would have a hell of a claim that the feds in fact and law were acting as agents for the state. Especialy if th ey were stupid enough to go after the very things the original state warrant that was refused.

this has already been settled in other areas. Just like a cop can't get joe blow to break into your home to find things he can't get a warrant for. It's the same thing

would be that very thing they bitch all the time civil and defense attorneys do.

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