A few weeks ago, I presented a webinar about the Fourth Amendment in the digital age. In preparation, I tried to find out as much as I can about the different ways law enforcement uses technology in investigations and if and when those uses constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment. What I discovered, boiled down to its most basic, is that if law enforcement can do it in a low-tech way, they can do it high tech. So, for example, if an officer standing on the sidewalk could see into your backyard, then a camera placed on a pole with the same viewpoint would work just as well.
The leading case right now is United States v. Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court’s GPS case from last summer, authored by Justice Scalia. Originally, whether something constituted a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment had been closely tied to common-law trespass and a person’s connection to property. Over the years, the property-based approach was somewhat pushed aside and the focus was on protecting people, not places. The concept “reasonable expectation of privacy” was born and had been the focus of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Then came Jones. Jones circles back to property and the concept of trespass. Under Jones, trespass plus an effort to obtain information is a search, warranting the protections of the Fourth Amendment. Read more »