Technology versus privacy
New York’s Court of Appeals drew a vital line in the sand between the ever-advancing ability of police to track a citizen’s every movement, and the right of citizens to not dwell constantly under the eye of the state.
The court concluded Tuesday that State Police had violated New York’s Constitution in failing to take the basic step of asking a judge for a search warrant before placing a global positioning system tracking device on Scott Weaver’s car.
Police maintained they didn’t need a warrant, because GPS tracking didn’t constitute a search. It was, they argued, no different from having police tail Mr. Weaver.
Wrong. Technology enabled police to effectively plug Mr. Weaver into a device, monitor him 24 hours a day for more than two months and download his life into a computer. The crime he was convicted of — burglary of the Latham K-Mart in 2005 — hadn’t even occurred when the GPS was planted. To this day, police have not offered a reason for tracking him.
This week’s decision threw out the GPS evidence and sent the case back for a new trial.
A 4-3 majority opinion written by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said this technology does not merely enhance the human abilities police officers use to track a suspect. His analysis reads like a description of a police state:
“The potential for a similar capture of information or ’seeing’ by law enforcement would require, at a minimum, millions of additional police officers and cameras on every street lamp …That such a surrogate technological deployment is not … compatible with any reasonable notion of personal privacy or ordered liberty would appear to us obvious.”
A significant concern not reflected in the ruling is that such technology isn’t selective. It would indiscriminately record the movements of everyone using the car, not just the person of interest to police.
This decision does not prevent police from using the latest tools to catch criminals. It simply says that such a deep intrusion into a person’s life amounts to a search, and that police must first convince a judge that there’s a reason for it.
Our justice system is constantly trying to balance public safety and privacy. In 1928, in a case concerning phone tapping, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote:
“The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect … They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone — one of the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”
Some might say this case was about whether law enforcement can keep up with technology. It was about much more than that. It was about whether a free nation, and our personal liberty, can keep up with it, too. Narrowly, they did.
Source: Times Union