Apple Watch's Auto-911 Call Feature Could Cause Legal Trouble

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on September 26, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Apple recently unveiled its new product line, including the Apple Watch Series 4. One of the watch's features is an auto-dial 911 call if the wearer has been unresponsive for a set amount of time. Though this is an opt-in feature, if users are over the age of 65, it is an opt-out.

Some may see this as a great technological advancement, providing a new degree of freedom for those with health problems, such as epilepsy or a propensity for heart attacks, strokes, or fainting. But it comes with a price. If 911 is dialed, police can enter whatever premise you are in, under the "community caretaker" exception, and perform a search and seizure of the premise without violating 4th Amendment rights. Apple has decided that the balance between safety and privacy tips in the favor of safety. But will users agree?

Community Caretaker Exception to the 4th Amendment

The 4th Amendment protects people from the unlawful search and seizure of a premise, whether it is a home or a car or otherwise, without a warrant. A few exceptions have been made over the last 200 years, primarily in the field of exigent circumstances (police had to enter before the suspect consumed all of the drugs) or plain view (the police pull you over for a valid reason, and while speaking with you, notice the gun in your car).

One newer exception is called the "community caretaker" exception. Yes, it sounds well-intentioned, and is based on the view that police not only serve the public by chasing down suspects, but are also around to take care of people if they are in need. If you, or someone that lives with you, calls 911 for a well-check visit, the police are allowed to enter, and if they see any evidence of a crime while there, they can seize it and arrest whomever is suspected.

Another Set of Helpful Eyes ...

The new auto-911 feature can determine if you have had a bad fall. If so, the watch will try to give numerous urgent alerts: tapping the wearer on the wrist, sounding a very loud alarm, and displaying a visual alert. It will then ask the wearer to reply with "Emergency SOS" or "I'm ok."

However, if the wearer has not responded or moved for a minute, the watch begins a 15 second countdown, and then calls emergency services. This is a great service for people that do have a legitimate fear of having a health emergency, which in the past has forced them to be homebound or constantly with another person. This new degree of safe freedom is indeed liberating. Since the feature is opt-in for those under 65, most fears of "invasion of privacy" are somewhat assuaged.

... But Are They Connected to the Long Arm of the Law?

There will be times when the community caretaker exception kicks in, and people are arrested based on evidence seen by police when responding to an auto-911 call. Perhaps the wearer is over 65 but enjoys a joint from time to time in a state where it is still illegal. Or what if the wearer forgot or erroneously opted-in, and the police are called.

It is easily foreseeable that a person comes home from a bar, drunk, stumbles home, literally, and passes out. The stumble could set off the alarm, the passed-out homeowner could not hear the alarm, the police are called, and though the individual thought they had made it home safely, the cops have entered and found drugs on their person, or realized that the person had driven home drunk. According to the community caretaker exception, the evidence could be seized and the person could be arrested.

Legal experts are calling on Apple to justify this new feature. To date, Apple has stayed quiet. but with the launch of this product on September 21st, soon these auto-911 calls, and subsequent arrests, will start playing out, in a court of law,  and in the court of public opinion. Time, or at least the timepiece, will tell if this was a good technological advance.

If you feel your constitutionally protected right to privacy has been violated by an unlawful search and seizure, contact a criminal defense attorney, who can listen to your case, and decide if your rights have been violated, and if evidence can be withheld in your case.

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