Katz Has Only One Step: The Irrelevance of Subjective Expectations

22 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2014 Last revised: 17 Mar 2018

See all articles by Orin S. Kerr

Orin S. Kerr

University of California, Berkeley School of Law

Date Written: June 11, 2014


This Essay argues that the “subjective expectation of privacy” test from Katz v United States is a phantom doctrine. The test exists on paper but has no impact on outcomes. An empirical study of cases decided in 2012 indicates that the majority of judicial opinions applying Katz do not even mention the subjective expectations test; opinions that mention the test usually do not apply it; and even when courts apply it, the test makes no difference to the results.

The subjective test acts as a phantom doctrine because of an overlooked doctrinal shift. A close reading of Justice Harlan’s Katz concurrence suggests that the subjective test was originally intended to restate the holdings of the Supreme Court’s cases on invited exposure. Under those cases, an individual waives his Fourth Amendment rights by inviting others to observe his protected Fourth Amendment spaces. After Katz, however, the Supreme Court misunderstood this original design and recast those holdings as part of the objective test instead of the subjective test. This doctrinal shift quietly eliminated the role of the subjective test. The Supreme Court should abolish the subjective-expectations test to clarify and simplify Fourth Amendment law.

Keywords: Fourth Amendment, Katz, expectation of privacy

JEL Classification: K14, K42

Suggested Citation

Kerr, Orin S., Katz Has Only One Step: The Irrelevance of Subjective Expectations (June 11, 2014). 82 University of Chicago Law Review 113 (2015), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2448617

Orin S. Kerr (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley School of Law ( email )

Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

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