The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona underlined the importance of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments and drew a line that law enforcement must not cross – all in the interest of protecting individuals’ constitutional rights. Unfortunately, however, the high court was not as clear regarding the level of protection required under the Fourth Amendment in its 2012 decision in United States v. Jones.
In Jones, the Court held that a Fourth Amendment “search” occurs, and a warrant is required, when a GPS tracking device is attached by law enforcement to a person’s vehicle and then used to track its movements. Remaining unclear from the opinion, however, was whether and when such searches could be ever be exempt from the warrant requirement. Further unclear was whether the ruling would apply to other technologies, such as smartphones and OnStar systems.
Because of these ambiguities, and magnified by developments in location technologies, Fourth Amendment and privacy rights are giving way to aggressive law enforcement – and courts are divided on the propriety of these tactics. The Obama Administration recently argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit that the Supreme Court has given the government broad exemptions to search warrant requirements (such as the “reasonable suspicion” and the “probable cause” exceptions) and that device tracking can fall under these exemptions.
Far more troubling, however, is a recent opinion by a federal magistrate in New York in which U.S. Magistrate Judge Gary Brown effectively eviscerated Fourth Amendment protections for device tracking. Brown ruled that a search warrant is not necessary for authorities to obtain real-time location information for a suspect’s cell phone. Brown held that “phone users who fail to turn off their cell phones do not exhibit an expectation of privacy.” The magistrate’s opinion would mean that we are all effectively giving our consent to search by virtue of using a ubiquitous (and near-essential) technology.
Brown’s opinion contrasts starkly with Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s concurring opinion in Jones, in which she noted:
People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers, the URLs that they visit and the e-mail addresses with which they correspond to their Internet service providers, and the books, groceries and medications they purchase to online retailers . . . I would not assume that all information voluntarily disclosed to some member of the public for a limited purpose is, for that reason alone, disentitled to Fourth Amendment protection.
The contrasting statements among the courts have reinforced the need for Congress to step in and circumscribe law enforcement tracking tactics. Currently before the House are both H.R. 983, the Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act and H.R. 1312, the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act. Both bills are aimed at providing a legal framework for when and how location tracking devices can be used, and when and how data location records may be obtained. Both bills were introduced during the last Congress and reintroduced during this term. With bipartisan support, hopefully they will get traction. In the meantime, you may want to keep your cell phone powered off.