The “Circuit Split” That Wasn’t

Sam Sylvan, MJLST Staffer

Earlier this year, the Fourth Circuit punted on an opportunity to determine the constitutional “boundaries of the private search doctrine in the context of electronic searches.” United States v. Fall, 955 F.3d 363, 371 (4th Cir. 2020). The private search doctrine, crafted by the Supreme Court in the 80’s, falls under the Fourth Amendment’s umbrella. The doctrine makes it lawful for law enforcement to “search” something that was initially “searched” by a private third party, because the Fourth Amendment is “wholly inapplicable to a search or seizure, even an unreasonable one, effected by a private individual not acting as an agent of the Government or with the participation or knowledge of any government official.” United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113 (1984).

An illustration: Jane stumbles upon incriminating evidence on John’s laptop that implicates John in criminal activity (the “initial private search”), Jane shows the police what she found on the laptop (the “after-occurring” search), and the rest is history for John. But for law enforcement’s after-occurring search to avoid violating the Fourth Amendment, its search must not exceed the scope of the initial private search. “The critical measures [to determine] whether a governmental search exceeds the scope of the private search that preceded it,” United States v. Lichtenberger, 786 F.3d 478, 485 (6th Cir. 2015), include whether “there was a virtual certainty that nothing else of significance was in the [property subjected to the search]” and whether the government’s search “would not tell [law enforcement] anything more than [it] already had been told” or shown by the private searcher. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. at 119.

Of course, the Supreme Court’s holdings from the 80’s that speak to the scope of the Fourth Amendment are often difficult to reconcile with modern-day Fourth Amendment fact patterns that revolve around law enforcement searches of modern electronic devices (laptops; smartphones; etc.). In the key Supreme Court private search doctrine case, Jacobsen (1984), the issue was the constitutionality of a DEA agent’s after-occurring search of a package after a FedEx employee partially opened the package (upon noticing that it was damaged) and saw a white powdery substance.

Since the turn of the millennium, courts of appeals have stretched to apply Jacobsen to rule on the private search doctrine’s application to, and scope of, law enforcement searches of electronics. In 2001, the Fifth Circuit addressed the private search doctrine in a case where the defendant’s estranged wife took a bunch of floppy disks, CDs, and zip disks from the defendant’s property. She and her friend then discovered evidence of defendant’s criminal activity on those disks while searching some of them and turned the collection over to the police, which led to the defendant’s conviction. United States v. Runyan, 275 F.3d 449 (5th Cir. 2001).

There are two crucial holdings in Runyan regarding the private search doctrine. First, the court held that “the police exceeded the scope of the private search when they examined the entire collection of ‘containers’ (i.e., the disks) turned over by the private searchers, rather than confining their [warrantless] search to the selected containers [that were actually] examined by the private searchers.” Id. at 462. Second, the court held that the “police search [did not] exceed[] the scope of the private search when the police examine[d] more items within a particular container [i.e., a particular disk] than did the private searchers” who searched some part of the particular disk but not its entire contents. Id. at 461, 464. Notably absent from this case: a laptop or smartphone.

Eleven years after Runyan, the Seventh Circuit held that the police did not exceed the scope of the private searches conducted by a victim and her mother. Rann v. Atchison, 689 F.3d 832 (7th Cir. 2012) (relying heavily on Runyan). In Rann, the police’s after-occurring search included viewing images (on the one memory card brought to them by the victim and the one zip drive brought to them by the victim’s mother) that the private searchers themselves had not viewed. Id. Likening computer storage disks to containers (as the Runyan court did), the Rann court concluded “that a search of any material on a computer disk is valid if the private [searcher] viewed at least one file on the disk.” Id. at 836 (emphasis added). But notably absent from this case like Runyan: a laptop or smartphone.

Two years after Rann, the Supreme Court decided Riley v. California—a landmark case where the Court unanimously held that the warrantless search of a cellphone during an arrest was unconstitutional. Specific reasoning from the Riley Court is noteworthy insofar as assessing the Fourth Amendment’s (and, in turn, the private search doctrine’s) application to smartphones and laptops. The Court stated:

[W]e generally determine whether to exempt a given type of search from the warrant requirement by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes upon an individual’s privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests. . . . [Smartphones] are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers. One of the most notable distinguishing features of [smartphones] is their immense storage capacity.

573 U.S. 373, 385, 393 (2014). Riley makes crystal clear that when the property at issue is a laptop or smartphone, the balance between a person’s privacy interests and the governmental interests tips heavily in favor of the individual’s privacy interests. In simpler terms, law enforcement needs a warrant to search a laptop or smartphone unless it has an extremely compelling reason for failing to comply with the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.


One year after Riley, the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits—armed with Riley’s insights regarding modern electronic devices—decided Lichtenberger and United States v. Sparks, respectively. The two Circuits held that in both cases the police, in conducting their after-occurring warrantless searches of a laptop (Lichtenberger) and a smartphone (Sparks), exceeded the scope of the initial private searches, reaching these conclusions in large part due to Riley. In Lichtenberger, the police exceeded the scope of the initial private search when, without a warrant, they looked at photographs on the laptop that the private searcher had not looked at, despite the private searcher’s initial viewing of other photographs on the laptop. 786 F.3d 478 (6th Cir. 2015). In Sparks, the police exceeded the scope of the initial private search when, without a warrant, they viewed a video within the same album on the smartphone that the private searcher had scrolled through but which the private searcher did not actually view. 806 F.3d 1323 (11th Cir. 2015), overruled on other grounds by United States v. Ross, 963 F.3d 1056 (11th Cir. 2020) (overruling Sparks “to the extent that [Sparks] holds that [property] abandonment implicates Article III standing”).


At first glance, Lichtenberger and Sparks seem irreconcilable with Runyan and Rann, leading many commentators to conclude there is a circuit split regarding the private search doctrine: the “container” approach versus the “file”/“narrow” approach. But I disagree. And there is a rather simple explanation for reaching this conclusion—Riley merely heightened Jacobsen’s “virtual certainty” requirement in determining whether law enforcement exceed the scope of initial private searches of laptops and smartphones. In other words, “virtual certainty” is significantly elevated in the context of smartphones and laptops because of the heightened privacy interests at stake stemming from their immense storage capacities and unique qualities—i.e., they contain information and data about all aspects of our lives to a much greater extent than floppy disks, CDs, zip drives, and camera memory cards. Thus, the only apparent sure way for law enforcement to satisfy the private search doctrine’s “virtual certainty” requirement when a laptop or smartphone is involved (and thereby avoid inviting defendants to invoke the exclusionary rule) is to view exactly what the private searcher viewed.

In contrast, the “virtual certainty” requirement in the context of old school floppy disks, CDs, zip drives, and memory cards is quite simply a lower standard of certainty because the balance between privacy interests and legitimate governmental interests is not tipped heavily in favor of privacy interests.

While floppy disks, CDs, and zip drives somewhat resemble “containers,” such as the package in Jacobsen, smartphones and laptops are entirely different Fourth Amendment beasts. Accordingly, the four cases should all be analyzed through the lens that the particular electronic device at issue in each case is most significant because it guides the determination of whether the after-occurring search fell within the scope of the initial private search. Looking at the case law this way makes it so that it is not the container approach versus the file approach. Rather, it is (justifiably) the container approach for certain older electronic storage devices and the file approach for modern electronic devices that implicate weightier privacy concerns.