More Than Friends: Recognizing Dichotomous Relationships in the Third Party Doctrine

46 Pages Posted: 15 Feb 2023

See all articles by Eang L. Ngov

Eang L. Ngov

University of Oklahoma College of Law

Date Written: February 13, 2023


When a person gives information or something tangible to someone or a business, the Fourth Amendment’s third party doctrine allows the government to obtain that evidence without a warrant or probable cause. The third party doctrine is premised on the rationale that we hold no reasonable expectation of privacy when we voluntarily expose information to others and assumed the risk that the third party would share the information and must deal with the consequences of that misplaced trust. The doctrine originated from a series of cases where law enforcement obtained information revealed by criminals through their mistaken trust of other criminals, snitches, or undercover agents posing as criminals, as seen in On Lee v. United States, Lopez v. United States, Hoffa v. United States, Lewis v. United States, and United States v. White.

While the logic behind the impetus for third party doctrine might appear sound, the doctrine’s applications have been faulty. The third party doctrine makes sense when applied to criminals and personal relationships, such as friends, family, and neighbors. But the third party doctrine is incongruous when applied to legitimate commercial relationships, business transactions, or business records, as in United States v. Miller and Smith v. Maryland. We have a reasonable expectation of privacy within legitimate commercial relationships and business transactions because that expectation is protected by contractual duties and rights, industry norms that ensure proper business conduct, assurances given by the business or an independent party to secure our confidence, and legal recourse to vindicate our expectations. Commercial relationships differ significantly from personal relationships because of the differences in trust and privacy expectations between friends and businesses. Legal norms support and reinforce our privacy expectations with businesses and commercial relationships. Our expectation of privacy within business transactions is ensconced in and recognized throughout the legal system–common law, statutes, constitutions, and international law.

Based on the commonsense differences between commercial and personal relationships, this article is the first to propose a new paradigm for the third party doctrine by restraining its application only to the context of personal relationships. This paradigm is the most comprehensive model that has been proposed for refining the third party doctrine and ensures that our privacy does not shrink as technology expands.

Keywords: Third Party Doctrine, Business, Friends, Trust, United States V. Miller, Smith V. Maryland, Business Relationship, Personal Relationship, Confidentiality, Privacy, Snitch, Undercover Agent, False Friends, Fourth Amendment, Search, on Lee V. United States, Lopez V. United States, Hoffa, White

JEL Classification: K14, K42, K19, K22

Suggested Citation

Ngov, Eang L., More Than Friends: Recognizing Dichotomous Relationships in the Third Party Doctrine (February 13, 2023). Available at SSRN: or

Eang L. Ngov (Contact Author)

University of Oklahoma College of Law ( email )

300 W Timberdell Rd
Norman, OK 73019

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