If asked, most Americans would be surprised to learn, or maybe even shocked to learn, that they have absolutely no right to privacy in the records maintained by the institutions with whom they bank.
In order to get a person’s bank statements, a prosecutor need only ask. There is no need to obtain a search warrant from an independent magistrate or obtain a subpoena from a sitting grand jury. This has been the law for the past 38 years as a result of the decision of the Supreme Court in United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435, 96 S.Ct. 1619 (1976).
In Miller, the Supreme Court held that a depositor does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the records of his account maintained by a bank pursuant to the Bank Secrecy Act. Justice Lewis Powell, writing for the majority, reasoned that there was no expectation of privacy in the contents of a bank record because “checks are not confidential communications but negotiable instruments to be used in commercial transactions.” Specifically, “financial statements and deposit slips, contain only information voluntarily conveyed to the banks and exposed to their employees in the ordinary course of business.” As such, “The depositor takes the risk, in revealing his affairs to another, that the information will be conveyed by that person to the government.”
In so holding, the court did not consider the extent to which the government can obtain information about a person’s most confidential affairs through an analysis of bank account records. But such an analysis was recently made by Justice John Roberts, speaking for a unanimous court in Riley v. California. In Riley, the court held that the Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from examining the contents of a person’s cell phone absent a warrant.
In Riley, Robert’s rejected the government’s argument that an individual did not enjoy an expectation of privacy in those records maintained in electronic devices carried on the person. In so holding, Roberts analyzed the expectation of privacy in a very different way than did Powell. According to Roberts, the arrest of an individual may diminish the person’s expectation of privacy, but it does not do away with it entirely. Roberts pointed out that cell phones are mini-computers which just “happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone.” This gives people the ability to keep on their person “every picture they have taken, or every book or article they have read,” which otherwise they would have to carry in a trunk, an item that the court’s previous cases held requires the government to obtain a warrant to search.
Every aspect of life
Seizing the contents of a cell phone gives the government the ability to reconstruct the sum of an individual’s private life, “reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions.” Roberts observed that while “a person might carry in his pocket a slip of paper reminding him to call Mr. Jones; he would not carry a record of all his communications with Mr. Jones for the past several months, as would routinely be kept on a phone. Indeed, “it is no exaggeration to say that many of the more than 90 percent of American adults who own a cell phone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives—from the mundane to the intimate.”
For example, the government could readily learn everything about an individual’s “private interests or concerns—perhaps a search for certain symptoms of disease, coupled with frequent visits to WebMd.” Further, “Data on a cell phone can also reveal where a person has been.” As a result a person’s “specific movements down to the minute, not only around town but also within a particular building,” could be uncovered. A mere examination of the “apps” found on a cell phone could reveal whether a person was a Democrat or a Republican, whether they had an addiction or were pregnant, etc.
Almost everything that can be said regarding the violation of an individual’s privacy resulting from the government’s search of the person’s cell phone can be said about a search of a person’s bank accounts. You can even trace their movements through time through their debit card charges. Consequently, to the extent that it is reasonable for society to expect that the government have a search warrant or a grand jury subpoena as a condition of invading that zone of privacy, the same could be said of searches of an individual’s banking records. It appears that this sort of argument, which would have fallen on deaf ears 15 years ago, may find a receptive ear in the courts today. As a result of the court’s reasoning in Riley, lawyers are now in a position to argue that Miller’s narrow view of society’s expectations of privacy is no longer valid.