Today’s ruling from the Supreme Court reminds us that the 4th Amendment is at least a little less dead than some have suggested:
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday ruled unanimously that the police violated the Constitution when they placed a Global Positioning System tracking device on a suspect’s car and monitored its movements for 28 days.
A set of overlapping opinions in the case collectively suggested that a majority of the justices are prepared to apply broad privacy principles to bring the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches into the digital age, when law enforcement officials can gather extensive information without ever entering an individual’s home or vehicle. [NYT]
It’s an important win, not so much because of what the ruling itself means, but because a loss in this case would have constituted another rather harsh blow to an already fragile 4th Amendment.
Really, it says a lot about our legal system’s regard for civil liberties that it was even necessary for the highest court in the country to spend any time at all considering whether or not it constitutes a "search" when police install a tracking device on someone’s vehicle and monitor their every movement for a month straight. That’s like asking if the condition of being engulfed in flames constitutes a "fire."
Unfortunately, some larger questions surrounding 4th Amendment rights in an age of increasingly high-tech surveillance systems remain unanswered today. A majority of the justices agreed that police performed an unconstitutional search by placing a GPS device directly on the suspect’s vehicle, and they decided the case on those grounds alone. If police had used a different technology – one that didn’t require sneakily installing something on someone’s private property – it’s possible that the Court would have approved. We don’t know, and I’m more than a little bit afraid to find out.