EDITORIAL: Thwarting domestic spies
An appeals court tells the police to obey the Constitution
Rights once lost are usually gone for good. Governments never admit mistakes, and few judges are courageous enough to set things right. So it’s refreshing that the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia last week came to the eminently reasonable conclusion that the police must get a warrant before putting an electronic tracking device on someone’s car.
This shouldn’t be controversial, but it is, and it has been a growing problem. The march of technology has created powerful tools that governments can use and abuse, to watch, track and listen to everything everyone does. Police agencies eagerly purchase the latest gadgets without much thought to their duty to follow the Constitution; specifically, the Fourth Amendment, which decrees that “persons, houses, papers, and effects” shall be secure from searches without a warrant based on probable cause. A GPS device to track someone logically falls neatly into this category.
Three brothers were suspected of committing a string of drugstore burglaries in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey, and the police wanted to attach a monitoring device to their car. This is where they were required to show to a judge the evidence implicating these men. This is not a heavy burden. Judges can question the officers to satisfy the court that a warrant is justified, and judges rarely say no. Nevertheless, the FBI didn’t take the trouble to make a proper application for a warrant. Instead, they consulted the U.S. Attorney’s Office and then mounted a snooping device on the suspects’ car.