A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that law enforcement can legally scan or swipe a seized credit card—in fact, it is not a Fourth Amendment search at all, so it doesn’t require a warrant.
In the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals’ 15-page opinion, swiping a card does not constitute a physical search, as the magnetic stripe simply contains the same information obviously visible on the front of the card. Plus, the defendant, Eric-Arnaud Benjamin Briere De L'Isle, couldn’t have had a reasonable privacy interest in the card, the court concluded, because he would have tried to use it when he tried to buy something, thereby giving up privacy interests to a third party (the issuing bank).
According to court records in United States v. De L’Isle, the case began in June 2014 when Eric-Arnaud Benjamin Briere De L'Isle was driving westbound on I-80 and was pulled over by a Seward County, Nebraska, sheriff’s deputy.
The deputy, Sgt. Michael Vance, pulled over De L’Isle (also known as “Briere”) for following too close to a tractor-trailer. As Sgt. Vance approached the car, he noticed the distinct “odor of burnt marijuana” coming from within the car, and he observed three air fresheners hanging from the rear-view mirror. After questioning De L’Isle, Sgt. Vance suspected that the driver might have drugs, so he deployed his drug-sniffing dog.
While no drugs were located, the law enforcement agent found and seized:
Later, upon further investigation by the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security, “The agents discovered the magnetic strips on the back of the 10 American Express credit cards in Briere’s name contained no account holder identification or account information which exists on legitimate American Express cards when they are issued.”
De L'Isle was indicted and eventually convicted of one count of possession of counterfeit devices. During trial, his attorney tried to raise the issue to suppress the search of the cards on the grounds that it violated the Fourth Amendment—an argument that was rejected by the judge but preserved on appeal. De L’Isle was eventually convicted and sentenced to 15 months in prison.
As the 8th Circuit concluded:
It is still unknown whether the Secret Service or DHS used an Electronic Recovery and Access to Data (ERAD) Prepaid Card Reader as part of their investigation—which surfaced in the news on Thursday, as it is newly deployed in Oklahoma.