Fourth Amendment; Warrantless Search of College’s Wireless Internet Connection Records

Commonwealth v. Dunkins, 229 A.3d 622 (Pa. Super. 2020), allocatur granted Aug. 4, 2020, appeal docket 45 MAP 2020

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to consider whether accessing a college’s wireless internet connection records without first obtaining a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment.

In 2017, two men wearing ski masks pretended to be Moravian College campus police to gain access to two students’ dorm room. Upon one student opening the door to the dorm room, one masked man punched one of the roommates and the other held the students at gunpoint demanding marijuana and a key to the student’s footlocker. The masked men stole approximately $1,000 in cash and a jar of marijuana. The robbery was reported to campus officials. Campus police requested Moravian’s Director of Systems Engineering to analyze its wireless network (WiFi) data to compile a list of students logged into the network near the wireless access point in the dormitory building where the robbery took place. Based on the WiFi data, campus police found that only three individuals who did not reside in that building were logged onto the campus WiFi at the robbery location. One of those users was a Moravian student, Dunkins. The WiFi information was provided to Bethlehem Police Department, which took over the investigation. The robbed student identified Dunkins as someone who previously took marijuana from him without payment. Dunkins alleged he had not been in the dormitory building of the robbery since 2016. A student living in the dormitory next to Dunkins testified that Dunkins bragged about the recent robbery, including posing as campus police.

Dunkins was arrested and charged with Robbery, Conspiracy to Commit Robbery, Receiving Stolen Property, and Simple Assault. Dunkins filed a Motion for Suppression of the campus WiFi log-on data, arguing that the warrantless search of WiFi data was an illegal search. During a suppression hearing, evidence was provided that each student must log on to the network with specific credentials, but may during the initial log-on choose to automatically log their devices onto the WiFi without entering the credentials. Additionally,  students are required to sign the Moravian Student Handbook, including a provision that permitted Moravian to “inspect information stored on its system at any time,  for any reason, and users cannot and should not have any expectation of privacy with regard to any data…” Slip Op. at 4. The Motion to Suppress was denied. At the conclusion of his trial, Dunkins filed a Motion for Extraordinary Relief, which was also denied, and Dunkins was sentenced to five to ten years’ imprisonment. Dunkins’ post-sentence motion was also denied and his appeal to Superior Court followed.

The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the Motion to Suppress and subsequent Motion for Extraordinary Relief, reasoning that Dunkins surrendered some privacy rights to have access to Moravian’s WiFi network and could have chosen to leave logout or not use Moravian’s WiFi system temporarily to avoid transmitting his location. Slip Op. at 14. In so holding, the Superior Court relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Carpenter v. U.S., –U.S. –, 138 S.Ct. 2206 (U.S. June 22, 2018), in which the Court found that the prohibition of acquisition of cell phone locational information without a warrant “did not invalidate ‘tower dump’ requests by law enforcement to identify all of the devices that were connected to one particular cell site during a particular interval,” and thus, Moravian’s actions were “akin to a ‘tower dump” because the campus did not specifically target any individual but compiled a list of all devices signed on and used process of elimination. Moreover, Superior Court emphasized that Dunkins consented to Moravian’s internet use policy and computing resources policy, which specifically authorized Moravian to collect and disclose any data related to student WiFi connections made onto its network and thus, Dunkins had no  expectation of privacy in such electronic information. Slip Op. at 9-10, 13.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to determine:

Whether the trial court erred by denying Mr. Dunkins’ Motion to Suppress the cell site location information and/or his Motion for Extraordinary Relief requesting the same under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.