No Privacy Interests In Another’s Apple Watch

Written on 06/10/2022
Will Aitchison

William Owens was the fire chief for the City of Monroe, Georgia. Logan Propes is Monroe’s city administrator, and R.V. Watts is the City’s police chief. Watts and Propes learned that Owens had a “intimate” relationship with a married woman referred to as K.I.

Chief Owens and K.I. had regular electronic communications via their personal electronic devices, including K.I.’s Apple Watch. In May 2020, K.I. was in the hospital for surgery, and K.I.’s son accessed K.I.’s Apple Watch and discovered communications between Owens and K.I. K.I.’s son shared the communications from the Apple Watch with Watts and Propes.

Watts and Propes later shared the communications with other individuals. K.I.’s son asked Propes to terminate Chief Owens from his position as fire chief based on the communications he found on the Apple Watch. When Propes fired Chief Owens, the Chief filed a lawsuit claiming, among other things, that the City violated his Fourth Amendment privacy rights by accessing the electronic communications on K.I.’s Apple Watch.

A federal court dismissed the lawsuit. The Court began with the proposition that “Fourth Amendment rights are personal, and only individ­uals who actually enjoy the reasonable expectation of privacy have standing to challenge the validity of a government search. A plaintiff must allege that he had a constitutionally protected rea­sonable expectation of privacy in the thing searched or seized. A reasonable expectation of privacy exists if the person has a subjective expectation of privacy in the object of the search and society is prepared to recognize as reasonable the expectation of privacy.

“Individuals have a legitimate expec­tation of privacy in the contents of their own personal electronic devices, such as cellphones. But a person does not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.

“Here, Chief Owens alleged no facts to suggest that he had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the object of the search – K.I.’s Apple Watch. There is no allegation that Chief Owens owned, possessed, controlled, or had the right to exclude others from K.I.’s Apple Watch. Chief Owens does point out that the Fourth Amendment encompasses an individual’s expectation of privacy in his personal movements and thus protects against the government’s warrantless acquisition of the cell-site location information from the individual’s own cell phone. But this does not establish that an individual has any expectation of privacy in someone else’s personal electronic device under the factual cir­cumstances alleged here.

“For all of these reasons, Chief Owens’s Fourth Amendment claim fails and is dismissed, as is his parallel claim under the Georgia Constitution.”

Owens v. Logan Propes, 2022 WL 1109431 (M.D. Ga. 2022).

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