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January 26, 2012

The Supreme Court Strikes Down Warrantless GPS Monitoring

This week, in United States v. Jones, all the justices of the Supreme Court agreed that the U.S. Constitution precludes the government from monitoring our movements using installed GPS technology absent a warrant supported by probable cause.

But the justices did not agree on the reasoning underlying this decision. The majority, in an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, viewed the vehicle to which the government had surreptitiously attached the GPS device as an “effect.” Accordingly, the use of the device constituted a search within the literal meaning of the Fourth Amendment—that is, it constituted a physical occupation of property by the government for the purpose of obtaining information, which the Fourth Amendment prohibits absent a warrant.

Notably, the majority declined to apply the analysis developed in Katz v. United States to determine whether a constitutional search had occurred. Under the Katz test, a court will inquire whether the government invaded a defendant’s objectively reasonable expectation of privacy. Scalia explained that it was unnecessary to apply the Katz test here, for that test does not preclude “previously recognized protection for property.” In other words, because this case involved an actual physical invasion of property, there was no need to determine whether the defendant had any objectively reasonable expectation of privacy.

Writing for himself and three of his colleagues, Justice Samuel Alito reached the same result applying Katz. The concurring justices concluded that “the use of long[] term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy,” and by any measure the monitoring in this case—four weeks—could only be considered long-term. Scalia and Alito argued back and forth about whether the Katz test has supplanted property-based determinations of privacy, but it seems clear that Katz will control when, unlike this case, the government’s monitoring does not involve an actual physical invasion of property.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined the majority but issued a concurrence that may prove the most interesting—and prescient—of all the opinions in Jones. She agreed that, at a minimum, “[w]hen the Government physically invades personal property to gather information, a search occurs,” regardless whether the defendant has an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy. And she warned against the dangers posed by the ability of the government, via GPS technology, “to assemble data that reveal private aspects of identity,” an ability that could “alter the relationship between citizen and government in a way that is inimical to democratic society.” She urged the courts to take account of these aspects of GPS technology “when considering the existence of a reasonable expectation of privacy in the sum of one’s public movements.”

More importantly, Justice Sotomayor suggested that, in light of the ubiquity of GPS and other similar technologies, perhaps the time has come “to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties.” Every day we reveal information about ourselves to others that is captured and stored—to our friends, to our family members, to our banks, to on-line service providers like Amazon and Facebook. Simply because we choose to disclose this information in the context of relationships of trust does not mean that the government should automatically have access to it. In the digital age, as Justice Sotomayor put it, Fourth Amendment doctrine should not “treat secrecy as a prerequisite for privacy.”

Lawrence Friedman

January 10, 2012

George Dargo

At a time when many academics are winding down, my colleague George Dargo, who passed away last week, became enviably prolific.

Before joining the New England Law faculty, back when he was a professor of history, George wrote a number of important books about legal history, including Roots of the Republic: A New Perspective on Early American Constitutionalism (1974), Law in the New Republic: Private Law and the Public Estate (1983), and, in between, Jefferson’s Louisiana: Politics and the Clash of Legal Traditions (1975). Jefferson’s Louisiana has been called “undoubtedly one of the most important studies ever of the Louisiana Purchase and its impact on the politics and legal culture of Louisiana.”

After he joined the New England Law faculty in 1983, George continued writing about legal history; his work in this time included A History of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (1993), and an article on the famous Sarah Roberts case, which appeared in 1997 in the journal of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Historical Society.

For nearly a decade thereafter, George focused his energies on the classroom. He taught courses in constitutional law, administrative law, freedom of expression, and law and literature, and he earned a reputation as a superlative classroom teacher. During this time, his writing consisted primarily of sharp letters to the New York Times about events of the day (some more recent examples of which can be found here).

In 2006, I asked George if he would be interested in contributing an article to an issue of the New England Law Review devoted to faculty scholarship. In short order he produced an essay on the Book of Ruth, “Deriving Law from the Biblical Narrative.” It was a gem, and George must have enjoyed the experience of putting it together more than he thought he would because there followed a study—the first by a law professor—of Franz Kafka’s legal writing, “Reclaiming Franz Kafka, Doctor of Jurisprudence” (2007) and a return to the area of his doctoral expertise, the Louisiana Purchase, in “The Digest of 1808: Historical Perspectives” (2009).

And that was not all. With the help of his son, Stephen, George turned his attention to Melville’s famous scrivener, Bartleby, in an interdisciplinary essay about the connections between law and architecture. And he began work on revising Jefferson’s Louisiana; the new edition would become the centerpiece of a program devoted to his work at the American Association of Law Schools 2010 meeting in New Orleans. Finally, just weeks before his death, George finished From Colony to Empire: Episodes in American History, which will be published in 2012 by the Lawbook Exchange. Episodes collects George’s fugitive legal history pieces, with new introductions and supporting materials.

Nor was George a selfish scholar. He always inquired about my projects and was instrumental in helping me to think through a piece on the Massachusetts Constitution. We spent even more time discussing our shared fondness for Melville: I read his take on Bartleby, he read mine on Billy Budd, we talked often of Ahab’s quest for the white whale.

All of us should be so productive and generous, our writing so thoughtful and polished. We at New England have lost a great comrade and teacher; the world has lost a great scholar.

Lawrence Friedman

January 3, 2012

Amending the Constitution to Overturn Citizens United

In more than 200 years, the United States Constitution has been amended just twenty-seven times. The primary reason for this is not hard to fathom: it is almost fantastically difficult to amend the Constitution. A proposal must secure the approval of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states before we can say the Constitution has been amended. To have a chance, then, any serious proposal must have a great deal of sustained popular support.

One proposal that appears to have that kind of support is an amendment that would overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which a majority of the Court lifted certain restrictions on corporate political speech. As Jeff Clements details in his new book, Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It, the proposed amendment would make clear that the terms “people,” “person” and “citizen” in the Constitution do not include corporations or limited liability companies established here or abroad—thus eliminating the premise underlying Citizens United, that the speech of corporate entities is as valuable under the First Amendment as that of flesh-and-blood human beings.

In the book and his blog, Clement captures the outrage people (actual people, not corporations) feel toward Citizens United. To be fair, there is a plausible First Amendment rationale for the Court’s decision: one goal of the freedom of speech is to promote a diversity of views and wealth of information in the marketplace of ideas. The problem is, that is not the only goal of the Amendment, and that goal is in any event undermined when certain speakers may flood the market with their particular views on a variety of issues.

Further, in its focus on maximizing the amount of speech in the marketplace, the Citizens United court failed to appreciate that only flesh-and-blood humans will suffer the consequences of lawmaking in a tangible way. Corporate interests might, for example, favor the wide use of technologies that can track our activities, such as automobile smart passes and GPS software, and speak through contributions to officials who would adopt these technologies. But no corporate entity will ever have to deal with any of the real-world consequences of that adoption, such as the potential for undermining individual privacy interests.

Perhaps more critically, Citizens United is wrongheaded because it suggests that the product of thought—the ideas that end up in the marketplace—is somehow disconnected from its source. If the premise of Citizens United is correct, whether speech is generated by humans, corporate public relations flacks, or a computer programmed to spit out random policy proposals, makes no difference—it’s all the same. But that can’t be right: humans have an inherent dignity that neither corporations nor computers possess, and the notion that their speech is worth the same as ours ultimately demeans us in a fundamental way.

Lawrence Friedman