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Posted: March 8, 2016

Apple Not Required To Assist U.S. Search Of Drug Dealer’s Phone Under All Writs Act

A lot of media attention is being devoted to Apple’s fight with the U.S. Government over a California Magistrate Judge’s February 16, 2016, ex parte order requiring Apple to assist in the Government’s investigation of the San Bernardino mass shooting by disabling the password security features on the iPhone of one of shooters. But as EDNY Magistrate Judge James Orenstein notes in In re Order Requiring Apple, Inc. to Assist in the Execution of a Search Warrant Issued by This Court, 15-MC-1902 (EDNY. Feb. 29, 2016), the California case is only one of several—including the one before him—around the country that presents similar issues under the All Writs Act (the “AWA”). In a thorough, 50-page Memorandum and Order, Magistrate Judge Orenstein denied the Government’s motion to compel assistance from Apple, thereby providing one of the first reasoned legal decisions in an important privacy vs. security societal debate.

The facts in the case before Magistrate Judge Orenstein are much more routine than those arising from the San Bernardino attack. It is precisely because of the adage that ‘hard cases”—like ones involving terrorism and national security—can make “bad law,” that Apple has pushed for consideration of the reach of the AWA in everyday criminal cases like this one. Here, the Government had obtained warrants in 2014 to arrest and search the residence of Jun Feng, a Queens resident, suspected of conspiracy to traffic in methamphetamine. Feng was arrested, indicted and one year later pled guilty. In executing the original search warrant, the DEA had seized (among other things) Feng’s iPhone 5s. Shortly before Feng’s guilty plea, the Government obtained another search warrant—this time to search Feng’s devices, including his iPhone—as part of its continuing investigation into Feng and his co-conspirators. The DEA and FBI were stymied, however, by the iPhone’s password security features which, the Government alleged, threatened to damage the data on the device if the federal agents were to query it without Apple’s technical assistance. Apple refused to assist without a “lawful order” of a court requiring it to do so. The Government applied to the EDNY for such an order under the AWA. At first, Apple provided minimal opposition and the matter languished for several months; however, after its loss in the California case on February 16, 2016, Apple pushed for a reasoned decision on the AWA in New York and it got one.

The AWA, only modestly rephrased since enacted by the first Congress as part of the Judiciary Act of 1789, today states that Article III courts ‘may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” 28 U.S.C. §1651. Magistrate Judge Orenstein denied the Government’s application first, for failing to meet the statutory requirement of being “agreeable to the usages and principles of law” and, second, as a matter of judicial discretion based on the statute’s permissive “may” language.

On the “usages and principles of law” issue, the Magistrate noted that in 1994 Congress had passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (“CALEA”), which provides a fairly “comprehensive legislative scheme” on the extent to which private telecommunications carriers and information service providers are required to assist government agents in law enforcement matters. The Court found that the absence “from that scheme of any requirement that Apple provide the assistance sought here implies a legislative decision to prohibit the imposition of such a duty.” Slip op. 16-20. It further held that the Government had failed in its affirmative obligation to cite other “usages and principles of law” where Congress had empowered the federal courts to compel private entities (as opposed to regulated utilities such as phone companies) to assist in law enforcement. The Magistrate declined to read the AWA as a broad legislative grant to allow any and all orders necessary or appropriate in aid of a court’s jurisdiction because such a reading “raises serious doubts about how such a statute could withstand constitutional scrutiny under the separation-of-powers doctrine.” Slip. op. 29.

The Court did not consider the constitutionality of the application of the AWA to the liberty or due process interests of citizens, such as Apple, that might be compelled against their will to assist in government investigations. However, Magistrate Judge Orenstein held that the Government’s application directed to Apple also failed under the three “discretionary factors’ used in AWA cases: (1) the “closeness” of the party being compelled to the criminal activity at issue; (2) the “burdensomeness” of the Government’s demands on compelled party and (3) the “necessity” of the Government’s obtaining the party’s assistance. Slip. op. 31-48. In brief, the Court reasoned that Apple bore no relationship to or responsibility for Feng’s criminal activity, that being required to disable security features of its products would adversely affect Apple’s business in the eyes of consumers, and that there was “conflicting evidence in the record about the availability, from private sources other than Apple, of technology that would allow the government to bypass the security on Feng’s device.” Slip op. 46.

At the time of this writing, the case is on appeal to District Judge Margo Brodie.

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