Satellite-Based Monitoring Constitutes a Fourth Amendment Search

Supreme Court rules that satellite-based monitoring constitutes a Fourth Amendment protected search in sex offender case but does not rule on whether this particular search is a reasonable one.

The Supreme Court has weighed in on a series of lower court decisions, issuing a summary opinion that satellite-based monitoring is in fact a Fourth Amendment search. What remains to be decided is whether GPS-based tracking constitutes an unreasonable search and is thus a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which offers protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

The opinion [pdf], made public by the Supreme Court yesterday, kicks the can back to the North Carolina state courts. What’s changed for them, is that they can no longer ignore the fact that affixing a GPS monitoring device to a person’s body or automobile is considered a Fourth Amendment search. It is the lower court now that will have to consider the Fourth Amendment implications at play here and determine whether such a search is unreasonable.

Torrey Dale Grady is a recidivist sex offender. In 1997, a North Carolina trial court convicted him of a second degree sexual offense. Grady was then convicted again in 1997 of taking indecent liberties with a child. After serving the sentence for his latter crime, the New Hanover County Superior Court summoned Grady to appear in a hearing to decide whether he should be subjected to wear a satellite based monitoring device for the remainder of his life. While Grady did not dispute his status as a recidivist offender, he did argue that the GPS monitoring regime violated his Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The real problem arises, as most for the Supreme Court, from sloppy lower court rulings. The original trial court ordering Grady to wear a GPS monitoring device was unpersuaded by his Fourth Amendment objection and ordered Grady to enroll in the program and be monitored for the rest of his life. Upon appeal, the North Carolina Court of Appeals too rejected Grady’s argument claiming it was foreclosed in a prior decision. In turn, the North Carolina Supreme Court dismissed Grady’s petition for discretionary review.

Kent Scheidegger, the author of some 150 Supreme Court briefs, explains that instead of characterizing satellite-based monitoring as a reasonable search, the lower courts decided that GPS monitoring was not a search at all. In this way they paved Grady’s path to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, on the other hand, is bound by its own precedents. In this instance, their precedent is United States v. Jones, a similar case in which the court ruled that “the Government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search'” because the government had “physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information.”

In essence, the Supreme Court is taking a philosophical position here, deciding that a ‘search’ is any means through which the government attempts to gather information from a person.

“In light of these decisions, it follows that a State also conducts a search when it attaches a device to a person’s body, without consent, for the purpose of tracking that individual’s movements,” the court wrote in its opinion.

Beyond this, the Supreme Court seems to reason that North Carolina believed its order was outside the scope of the Fourth Amendment because it was a civil order. The Supreme Court notes that “the government’s purpose in collecting information does not control whether the method of collection constitutes a search.”

“The State’s program is plainly designed to obtain information,” the court explained. “And since it does so by physically intruding on a subject’s body, it effects a Fourth Amendment search.”

In closing their opinion, the Supreme Court notes that the North Carolina courts did not rule on the reasonableness of this particular search and that they (the Supreme Court) had no intention of being the first to weigh in on that matter. They then vacated the existing rulings and remanded the case back to the lower courts.

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