11 July 2023

A Constitutional Road Trip


Our thoughts often turn to vacation travel. Today, I'd like to use the blog space to propose an itinerary for those traveling to Southern California. Skip the lines at Disneyland, the Getty, the Santa Monica Pier, or the San Diego Zoo. Instead, take a trip to make Atlas Obscura proud. What follows is a very brief itinerary for Constitutional law junkies and perhaps writers who want to get the law right. 

A quick refresher. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution holds in part:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated...

A number of Fourth Amendment hotspots lie in Southern California. Today's trip focuses on telephones. 

1. 8210 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles

The Chateau Marmont stands close by this address. The hotel offers a history of
misbehavior worthy of a blog or book. But for Con. Law fans, walk across the street. These days, I think you'll be looking at a taco shop (at least according to Google Street View). Close your eyes. Imagine the year is 1967, and you're looking at three telephone booths right here. 

Charles Katz was a career gambler and, in the 1960s,  possibly the best handicapper of college basketball games in the country. He had an apartment at 8400 Sunset and would walk down to the pay phones to call bookmakers on the East Coast with his game recommendations. 

Unbeknownst to Katz, the FBI had begun an investigation into his gambling activities. Law enforcement, with the consent of the phone company, disabled one of the phone booths. They attached a listening device between the other two. Regardless of which booth Katz chose, the calls could now be monitored. Phone booths, for those who don't remember, were clear glass boxes.  Katz entered and closed the door. The police recorded his conversations. The surveillance was conducted through the exterior wall and without a warrant. Katz was convicted and fined. 

Following conviction, Katz appealed and the case ultimately went to the US Supreme Court. In overturning his conviction, the court established a new standard for identifying where constitutional protections exist. Although phones booths are quaint history, the test, by and large, remains. The court looked at how the phone booth might be viewed by Katz and, objectively, by the public. Although visible, Katz took reasonable steps to protect his privacy.  The Fourth Amendment, the court ruled, exists to protect people rather than places. Katz had a reasonable expectation of privacy that society was prepared to recognize. He went inside the booth, closed the door, and paid for a private phone call. He was entitiled to believe that, although he might be seen, he had a right not to be heard. 

The protections of the Fourth Amendment covered not just personal effects but also the recording of Katz's conversation. This spot of Los Angeles stretched the constitutional protections surrounding search and seizure. 

Katz v. United States, 389 US 347 (1967)

According to his attorney, when informed of the historic decision, an outcome that changed constitutional analysis, Katz's first question was whether he could now sue the phone company. Want to bet how that turned out?

Take the I-5 south to San Diego

2. The intersection of Euclid and Imperial

A busy crossroads in a working-class neighborhood that's sandwiched between two freeways. The area has a history of gang activity. The intersection has been known as "The Four Corners of Death." When you go, don't stay long. 

If you look around, you'll see a gas station, St. Rita Catholic Church, and a sign for San Diego Legal Aid. Had you been here in the early morning hours of August 22nd, 2009, however, you'd likely have witnessed David Riley being pulled over for an expired license plate. He was subsequently arrested for traffic violations. His car's contents were inventoried before the vehicle was towed. The police located guns. Riley's troubles mounted. The police next seized the cell phone in his pocket. They went through its contents and found several pieces of evidence linking Riley to the "Bloods," a criminal street gang. (Remember the gang activity I mentioned above.) In particular, photos on the phone included a picture of Riley standing in front of a car that had been involved in a drive-by shooting a few weeks earlier. The photos and phone data added to the prosecutor's pile of evidence in the trial for that shooting. The other evidence included DNA and ballistics. 

At trial, Riley's attorney sought to suppress the phone evidence. Riley claimed that the search of his cell phone violated the Fourth Amendment. Prior to Riley's case, the law had been ambiguous about whether police could, without a warrant, search the contents of a cell phone. His case made it clear that they could not. 

Even though Riley carried the phone in his jeans, the court recognized that raking through a smartphone was different than merely checking the defendant's pockets. The intrusion into a person's privacy proved far broader with a cell phone search. The phone, as we all know, is the storage vessel for most people's entire lives. The court did not prohit the police from looking at them. They did, however, require that law enforcement obtain a warrant before checking. 

Look at the intersection again. A landmark case that shaped Con. Law occurred at this humble street crossing. 

Riley, incidentally, won the case but lost the war. The Supreme Court case did not secure his release from prison. On remand, California courts found that the other evidence overwhelmingly sustained his conviction. 

Riley v. California, 573 US 373 (2014)

Both these addresses changed the legal landscape. Both affected police procedure, and both, therefore, influenced the details of crime fiction. Drive by both. Then stop, take out phone, snap a pic or make a call. 

Until next time. 


  1. I'm up for the tour. I enjoyed that, Mark. That police could go through one's cell phone with impunity has long bothered me. Nicely written, Mark.

  2. Elizabeth Dearborn11 July, 2023 15:13

    Never been to California, but we have a nephew there who I think flies a Piper Cub & we would love to go up in it, also want to see the Peterson Museum.

    1. Still time to register for Bouchercon, San Diego


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