BIG LOSS FOR BIG BROTHER: Reports of privacy’s death, it turns out, are greatly exaggerated. On January 23 the Supreme Court unanimously restricted the government’s right to attach a GPS device to a suspect’s car in order to monitor his every movement on public roads for a month. The Obama administration had argued that such 24/7 surveillance did not amount to a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, because it revealed only public information, and therefore the government did not need a warrant or probable cause. Similar arguments had succeeded in the past; the Court twice ruled in the 1980s that the use of a beeper to assist in following a car’s movements from point A to point B on public roads did not constitute a search. And from a law enforcement perspective, the tactics in this case had proven effective: the defendant, Antoine Jones, had ultimately been convicted of trafficking so much cocaine that he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Thus, many were surprised at the resounding rejection of the administration’s position. This is not a Court known for its privacy concerns or sensitivity to criminal defendants. So how and why did the justices unite in favor of privacy? In fact, the unanimity masked significant disagreements. Four of the justices concluded that the GPS installation qualified as a search because it invaded Jones’s property interest for the purpose of gathering information—a narrow rationale that would not apply to government use of GPS technology already installed in cars, such as the OnStar navigation system so common today. Four other justices concluded that “longer-term” GPS monitoring for “ordinary” criminal offenses is a search because it violates our “reasonable expectation of privacy,” but left undefined what “longer-term” or “ordinary” means. Only Sonia Sotomayor, writing separately, argued, quite correctly, that advancements in surveillance technologies require the Court to rethink Fourth Amendment doctrine far more substantially.
But why did all the justices agree on the bottom line? One clue may be found in the oral arguments this past fall, during an exchange between John Roberts and the administration’s lawyer. What if the government “put a GPS device on all of our cars, monitored our movements for a month?” the chief justice asked, speaking for himself and his colleagues. “You think you’re entitled to do that under your theory?”
“Under our theory and under this Court’s cases,” the lawyer responded, “the justices of this Court when driving on public roadways have no greater expectation.” Now they—and we—do. DAVID COLE
BOOKS OVER BARS: With states continuing to invest in juvenile prisons at the expense of schools, recreational centers and other programs that might help keep kids off the streets, the “school-to-prison pipeline,” as it is often called, is being tackled head-on in Baltimore. There, student activists have set their sights on blocking the construction of a youth detention facility—and they’re winning.
Behind the campaign is the Algebra Project, founded in 1982 by educator and civil rights leader Robert Moses to help inner-city kids improve their math skills. Students were eventually given jobs tutoring one another, and when public funding for the program was threatened, the organization spurred them to advocate on their own behalf. Baltimore’s 84,212 public school students are notoriously behind their peers, partly because of large class sizes, deteriorating facilities and chronic underfunding. Since 2004 the Algebra Project has agitated for Maryland lawmakers to release about $1 billion in court-mandated education funding, engaging in civil disobedience, student strikes and street theater to drive home its message: “No education, no life.”