case law update

Third Party Doctrine Applies to the I.P. Address of a Home Computer

This week, the Seventh Circuit determined that the third party doctrine, set forth in United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435 (1976), and Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979), applies to a computer user’s I.P. address.

Between July and September 2008, emails were sent from gslabs@hotmail.com to an email address associated with a Vietnamese website. The emails from gslabs@hotmail.com  sought to purchase sassafras oil, an ingredient used in making ecstasy. The Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) had been monitoring the website and began an investigation into these communications. 

The DEA sent an administrative subpoena to the Microsoft Corporation, which owns Hotmail, requesting, among other things, “account login histories (IP Login history).” In response to the subpoena, Microsoft gave the DEA information related to the instances that the gslabs@hotmail.com account was accessed between July 5 and September 15, 2008. For each instance, Microsoft provided the date, time, and an I.P. address associated with the computer that accessed the account.

Because the I.P. address at issue was frequently used to access gslabs@hotmail.com, the DEA sent an administrative subpoena to the Comcast Corporation, which owns that I.P. address. The subpoena requested information related to the I.P. address, including any email addresses, customer names, physical addresses, service dates, telephone or instrument numbers, subscriber numbers or identities, and source of payments. Comcast responded that the I.P. address was assigned to Anna Caira and provided the DEA with Anna Caira’s home address.

With this information, the DEA continued its investigation and charged Frank Caira, Anna’s husband, with possessing and conspiring to manufacture illegal drugs. Caira moved to suppress evidence obtained through the subpoenas, contending that the government’s inquiry was a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, and that was warrant was required. The district court denied the motion and Caira pleaded guilty. Caira appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Under the Fourth Amendment, a “search” occurs when the government violates a subjective expectation of privacy that society recognizes as reasonable. Caira argued that he has both a subjective and objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in his I.P. address because it reveals information about his physical location. Caira also contended that a warrant was necessary in this matter because the DEA discovered an I.P. address associated with his home, which has special protection under the Fourth Amendment.

However, the court disagreed with Caira’s arguments. Citing both Miller and Smith for what has come to be known at the “third party doctrine,” the court of appeals stated that “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.” In Miller, the defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his banking records because he shared them with a third party – the bank. Likewise, in Smith, the defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the phone numbers he dialed from his home phone because he shared them with the phone company. Accordingly, the Supreme Court did not find that the government’s pursuit of information was a “search” requiring a warrant in either case.

The court of appeals held that the Supreme Court’s decisions in Miller and Smith control in this matter if it could be determined that Caira shared his I.P. address with even one third party. I.P. addresses are routinely broadcasted to third parties “far and wide in the course of normal internet use.” Here, the court found that Caira did share his I.P. address with one third party – Microsoft. When Caira used his home computer and sent his username and password to Microsoft, he expected to see his Hotmail inbox displayed on his computer screen. Every time Caira logged in, he sent Microsoft his I.P. address, specifically so that Microsoft could send back information to be displayed where Caira was physically present. Therefore, the court determined that Caira’s case fell under the Supreme Court’s decisions in Miller and Smith.

As such, the court of appeals found that Caira voluntarily shared the relevant information concerning his I.P. address with Microsoft and did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information.

Read the full case: United States v. Caira


This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, case law update, seventh circuit, michael j sgarlat

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