Info that police can collect without a warrant?

In this article:
Revealed: LAPD officers told to collect social media data on every civilian they stop

The writer describes an LAPD practice if demanding that citizens disclose their social media accounts and their social security numbers even if they are not under arrest. The information is claimed to be recorded on ‘interview cards’ for unspecified use by the police. Is this legal? If an element of implied threat is involved in the data collection, does that modify the legal status of the questioning?

Are there consequences if they’re told to pound sand? This is key.

We ask people all sorts of questions like this, including where they are employed. But if they refuse to provide that there isn’t anything [legally] we can do about it. Anyone can ask anybody questions. Doesn’t mean they have to answer.

Has anyone told LAPD to suck it and been arrested?

So, I’m supposed to tell the nice person with the 9mm on his hip to fuck off?

No thanks, I’d rather just get his boss shitcanned so they don’t make unethical nonsense like this standard procedure anymore. And then, the next nice person with a 9mm who does stuff like this can go looking for a new job instead of saying “anyone can ask anybody questions”. Not when I’m hiring you to do a job, you can’t.

I wouldn’t. However, I’ve not answered a question I wasn’t required to answer. There was a long, awkward silence, but that was all.

Sure, happens all the time. Some citizens are actually aware that they don’t have to talk to the police.

And this chip you have on your shoulder that you’re going to get someone fired because of a policy is a fantasy. Chances of it happening are low.

But my question still stands. I’m sure during the zillions of contacts they make somebody refused to tell LAPD this information. What happened to them?

Yeah, I know how the police work, and that’s exactly why nonsense like this shouldn’t be put on the backs of Citizens.

Is there some limit on what police can do with social media?

Let’s say, for instance, that someone accuses John Doe of being - I dunno, a terrorist. Are the feds, or a grand jury, allowed to go to John’s Facebook and individually message and ask all 800 of his friends if he has any known background of being associated with terrorism or whatnot? That would totally destroy his reputation even if he were innocent.

Are such contacts on their public page?
Anyone else could do the same.

Sure, but presumably police are under restrictions that ordinary citizenry aren’t.

The legal standard for when police can collect information without a warrant involves the “expectation of privacy” test. If there is an established, constitutional expectation of privacy in a specific context, then sans other mitigating factors, a police officer is required to obtain a search warrant to collect said information. A classic example is something inside a person’s private residence. That is a location that the courts have enshrined as having one of the highest expectations of privacy, and most situations where police search a home without a warrant are going to be given serious legal scrutiny. However one of the most effective means police have at bypassing the expectation of privacy is via consent, if a cop comes and asks to search my house, and I say “sure thing”, I have forfeited my expectation of privacy and most of my Fourth Amendment protections. AKA I’ve done a very, very stupid thing.

Many searches of cars that get people in trouble are actually conducted after the suspect gave consent. Sans consent, a police officer is typically only limited to things in “plain view” during a traffic stop. If they want more than that they will need to find some probable cause and get a warrant to do a search.

So let’s look at the specifics of the OP’s scenario:

Your social media account information. This is actually “information”, you are not required to give any information to police [added] - other than who you are, particularly in a traffic stop you are required to provide identification as to who you are and proof you have a driver’s license, in a street interaction in many states you are required to identify who you are but are not generally required to produce physical identification on the street… In fact information has an even higher bar for police access than “property / personal possessions / private papers”, in that providing information, in many contexts, is considered “providing testimony against yourself”, which you are never required to do under the Fifth Amendment. So there is actually almost no circumstance where you are required to legally tell a police officer what your Facebook ID is or your Twitter handle etc. They can do a lot of things using public resources on the internet, to try and find out, but they cannot make you tell them, in this case even with a search warrant. With a search warrant they could seize your phone, computer etc, and under IT analysis may be able to determine what your social media accounts are, and may even find your passwords in plaintext etc if you’ve stored them that way. However just like the police can ask you “what are you doing?” (that is also information, even with a warrant they can never make you tell them the answer to that question), they can certainly ask for social media information.

As for it being improper. A good century and more of American law has established it as a police procedural norm that police, while making a lawful stop, can ask you various questions. Some of those questions, if you provide answers, can fuck you over really bad legally. That doesn’t make it improper. You can say no. If they haven’t made a lawful stop you don’t even have to stop or respond to their questioning, although that scenario only applies to on the street interactions with police. Police can stop you on the street to briefly ask you questions, but on the street you have much stronger rights to just ignore them or tell them “I don’t answer police questions”, and they have little recourse. Due to the way the road system and traffic laws work, you do not have the right to just drive away from a traffic stop without permission, but they also cannot stop you and hold you forever without cause.

Edited to add a clarifying point about the requirement to provide police identification.

As a minor addendum on the requirement to “stop and identify” yourself, these are governed by State law: Stop and identify statutes - Wikipedia

Presumably in states without these laws, you aren’t even required to acknowledge or stop if a police officer on the street, without any other probable cause, asks you who you are.


Why would you presume that? What are you basing that presumption on?

If you put something on your public page, including your friends list, it’s fair game. It’s no different than going to your neighbors house and asking questions about you. Your friends are under no obligation to answer anything, including the door, but theres nothing that says they can’t be asked.

The original article said officers can use false identity social media accounts to gather information. Apparently officers were also told federal law lets them demand social security numbers. Not true per a Loyola professor. ( ) I have not found info on what happens to uncooperative people who don’t supply the info. I was hoping one of our legal scholars could comment on the issue. This has been covered in the press since 2015 but seems to have blown up again yesterday. Stinkin’ policy, I think.

This really isn’t particularly novel under the law. You can find literally mountains of documentation on how police are allowed to gather evidence and ask questions. The question “where do you work?” is no more or less constitutionally valid than “what is your Twitter handle?” Both questions are questions a criminal suspect is never required to answer, but that are entirely appropriate for a police officer to ask.

There are situations where the nature of the police questions can result in subsequently collected information being thrown out, see:

However those situations still involve police searching and obtaining evidence that is held in private. Social media account names are not really private information by any standard, so there is no real limit to a cop’s authority to look at your Facebook page. There is serious limit to his ability to get your password and log into it, or to get access to your Facebook private messages etc.

I guess the real questions are…

A) Is there anything the police cannot ask even voluntarily. i.e. could they ask what you told your priest during your last confession? What about minors?
B) Is there anything you have to tell an police officer, even if they don’t have a warrant. I vaguely recall you have to divulge your name in some jurisdictions?

As a matter of departmental procedure, I think a lot of questions would get the cop in trouble, but most wouldn’t cross into unconstitutionality. There isn’t a lot of precedent constitutionally limiting what a cop is allowed to ask, there are some limits to what a cop can do with information derived from some questions.

But like if a cop asks a female at a traffic stop for her phone number and if she has a boyfriend, while not un-constitutional I would suspect most departments would have policies against such behavior.

@Martin_Hyde has a very thoughtful answer.

This is cheeky but this is the real question. If there are no consequences to saying no, police can ask whatever questions they want and people can choose not to answer.

That’s some nice dreamland you live in. Have you been to America? We don’t fire cops for shooting unarmed kids to death. You think we’re going to fire cops and their supervisors for asking a few impertinent questions?

This might be the understatement of the year.

The short answer is there is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits it. Police agencies will have policies on how to conduct investigations that might place some limits but, even if those policies are broken, they wouldn’t give John any recourse. Violating the policy would be between the cop and his or her boss.

This is an interesting wrinkle and almost perfectly structured to get cops to do something illegal (compel people to violate their fifth amendment rights) without the cops even being aware that they are doing it and granting them protection for their ignorance. It’s brilliant.

Police generally have qualified immunity for their actions when they make an innocent mistake, even if a person’s rights are violated. Under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, a police officer isn’t liable for violating your rights unless the officer violated a “clearly established” right that a reasonable person would have known about. Almost no rights are “clearly established,” so don’t think that’s a real limitation. I will venture to guess that there is no “clearly established right” to be free from giving a police officer your Social Security Number in a non-custodial voluntary encounter.

The police officer must also be acting in “good faith,” that is, if they know they are violating someone’s rights, they can’t do it. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 US 800, note 34 (The Supreme Court in granting qualified immunity to certain White House officials, “emphasize[d] that our decision applies only to suits for civil damages arising from actions within the scope of an official’s duties and in “objective” good faith.” The good faith test is unevenly applied, however, so even many actions that were done in bad faith, such as flat out robbing people of $225,000 of cash and rare coins, have still been found to be within the scope of qualified immunity.)

So, by giving the police officers wrong training, the trainers can establish the good faith of the police officers who may be forcing people give their SSNs. Crisis averted, the police can do something illegal without consequence, which is a recurring feature of American jurisprudence. This training tidbit turns a bad practice into near complete lawlessness.

I’m not a gun owner, but AIUI people who are licensed to carry a concealed weapon and are stopped by the police are, in some or all states, legally required to disclose to the detaining officer whether they are carrying a weapon. Some cops will simply thank you for letting them know and then just carry on with the stop, and some will carefully secure your weapon and then hand it back to you after the stop is concluded - with the chamber empty and the magazine separate.

Martin_Hyde has already linked to the Wikipedia page on stop and identify statutes, which tells you which states require you to tell the cops your name if they have reasonable suspicion that you’ve committed a crime. But outside of that, you have the right to remain silent. Cops can ask you for all kinds of information, and you are not legally required to provide it. Bear in mind that if all you give is your name and no other identifying info - no address, no driver license, etc. - they may detain you a little longer until they are confident that they’ve positively identified you (if you’re John Johnson, and there are twenty other John Johnsons living in your town, this could take a bit). But that’s not the same as being arrested and suffering legal penalties for refusing to say where you live, what your SSN is, who you work for, or what your Twitter handle is.

Of course not, which is why putting the burden of resistance on the citizens who can be beaten half to death by their questioner is completely ridiculous.

That’s the part that needs to change, from asking someone to stand up to the group of cops who have the freedom of using violence, to having those cops be responsible for not violating our privacy, or at least not pushing it as standard practice.

That sounds more like issue advocacy than a GQ question. Whatever the wisdom of our system of justice, it does have known parameters, and it is largely on individual citizens to assert their constitutional rights. The police do not, as a matter of law, have the freedom of using violation or beating someone half to death in response to not divulging constitutionally protected information.