United States v. Johnson

By J. Matthew Soper

In United States v. Johnson, the Tenth Circuit addressed the “novel issue of whether an individual can have a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ in a storage unit rented with a stolen identity.”  The defendant, Johnson, instructed his girlfriend to rent a storage unit so that the he had a place to store his guns.  The girlfriend used a driver’s license from a woman named Haroldsen.  Johnson’s girlfriend went to the storage unit, posing as Haroldsen, and paid for the unit with cash.  Later, police searched the unit without a warrant.  On appeal, the Tenth Circuit held that Johnson did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a storage unit rented with a stolen identity.

The Court explained that the Fourth Amendment’s protections are personal and a person may only claim the exclusionary rule if their own rights were violated.  The standard for reasonable expectation of privacy is determined by the classic two-part test of (1) “whether the defendant manifested a subjective expectation of privacy in the area searched” and (2) “whether society is prepared to recognize that expectation as objectively reasonable.”  The Court then explained that there is no specific test to determine whether an expectation of privacy is one that society is prepared to accept as reasonable.  Rather, courts have looked to various methods including a probabilistic model of privacy, private facts model, a positive law model and a policy model. 

The Court determined that the determination comes down to the “ultimate question” of whether a privacy expectation is reasonable, which “is a value judgment.”  The pertinent question is whether if a particular form of surveillance “practiced by the police is permitted to go unregulated by constitutional restraints, the amount of privacy and freedom remaining to citizens would be diminished to a compass inconsistent with the aims of a free and open society.”

In general, people have “an expectation of privacy in a storage unit, because storage units are secure areas that ‘command a high degree of privacy.’”  Additionally, an individual can have a recognized expectation of privacy in a storage space even when he or she is not the lessee of the unit.  However, here, the fraudulent the misrepresentation by the defendant diminished any privacy interest in the storage unit.  Further, the Court discussed the fact that Utah law recognizes the identity of parties to a contract as a material part of the contract.

The ultimate resolution of the case came down to whether the defendant’s interest in the storage unit was one the Fourth Amendment is intended to protect.  According to the Court “[t]herefore, whatever subjective privacy expectations Johnson has in the storage unit were not expectations that ‘society is prepared to recognize … as objectively reasonable.’”  The Tenth Circuit’s ruling adds another interpretation of how courts should view the relationship between a person and borrowed or rented property.