Tag: Fourth Amendment

Strip-Search Machines: A Loss Seeds the Win

Last week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a Fourth Amendment challenge to the Transportation Security Administration’s strip-search machine policies, but it found that the TSA violated the Administrative Procedure Act in rolling them out. Too bad that the court arrived at the Fourth Amendment issues before they were ripe.

The bulk of the decision was devoted to the TSA’s law violation in creating strip-search machine policies without doing a notice-and-comment rulemaking. That’s the procedure federal agencies are required to carry out when Congress has delegated them legislative authority. Congress did delegate such authority when it told the Department of Homeland Security to develop technologies that detect nonmetallic, chemical, biological, and radiological weapons in 2004’s Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

“[T]he TSA has advanced no justification for having failed to conduct a notice-and-comment rulemaking,” the court wrote, adding that it expects the agency “to act promptly on remand to cure the defect in its promulgation.”

The TSA will likely spout “constantly changing threat environment” boilerplate to try and argue that it can avoid notice and comment under the APA’s “good cause” exception. An agency can skip notice and comment “when the agency for good cause finds … that notice and public procedure thereon are impracticable, unnecessary, or contrary to the public interest.”

But the threat environment is not “constantly changing” at the level of abstraction relevant for the strip-search machine policy—some people are out there who might try to get dangerous articles onto planes—and these machines will be in place for decades, if not permanently, under the TSA policy. They will affect the privacy and security of billions of air passenger journeys. Even if there were need for haste in rolling out the machines, nothing makes it uniquely difficult, or anything other than appropriate, for the TSA to engage in a public process to substantiate its actions.

When the TSA does a rulemaking, it will have to lay out its strip-search machine policies and—crucially—justify them. Notice-and-comment rules are subject to court review, and reversal if they are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.” That is a rather low standard, but it’s a higher standard than the agency has ever met before—none at all.

The TSA will have to exhibit how its risk management supports the installation and use of strip-search machines. How did the TSA do its asset characterization (summarizing the things it is protecting)? What are the vulnerabilities it assessed? How did it model threats and hazards (actors or things animated to do harm)? What are the likelihoods and consequences of various attacks? Risk assessment questions like these are all essential inputs into decisions about what to prioritize and how to respond.

Congress dictated detection of various harmful agents, a form of interdiction. (The other responses to risk are acceptance, prevention, and mitigation.) Given the array of choices available to it, how did the TSA select strip-search machines?

Crucially, how well do strip-search machines reach the risks identified in their risk assessment? This is a cost-benefit question. How much do strip-search machines cost to purchase, maintain, and operate? The costs denominated in dollars include money spent on buying the machines, configuring airports, and paying TSA salaries to operate the machines and process passengers. Such costs also include opportunity costs imposed on travelers when the time they spend at airports lengthens to accommodate extended security screening and variable delays. Yet more costs are denominated in lost privacy and dignity to the traveler. These are substantial, though hard to quantify.

Security benefits are also hard to quantify, but the agency should do so if it is to justify its policies as something better than random or intuitive reaction. DHS and TSA officials endlessly talk about risk and risk management, but they cannot honestly say they are doing risk management if they are not thinking these issues all the way through. I’ve offered a methodology for valuing security benefits, and security experts (as well as students) have analyzed the costs and benefits of homeland security programs. The TSA can do it too.

Watch in the rulemaking for the TSA to obfuscate, particularly in the area of threat, using claims to secrecy. “We can’t reveal what we know,” goes the argument. “You’ll have to accept our generalizations about the threat being ‘substantial,’ ‘ever-changing,’ and ‘growing.’” It’s an appeal to authority that works with much of the American public, but it is not one to which courts—a co-equal branch of the government—should so easily succumb.

If it sees it as necessary, the TSA should publish its methodology for assessing threats, then create a secret annex to the rulemaking record for court review containing the current state of threat under that methodology, and how the threat environment at the present time compares to threat over a relevant part of the recent past. A document that contains anecdotal evidence of threat is not a threat methodology. Only a way of thinking about threat that can be (and is) methodically applied over time is a methodology.

With this information in hand, a court would not only be ready to assess the TSA’s rule under the Administrative Procedure Act’s “arbitrary and capricious” standard. It would be ready to assess the reasonableness of the TSA’s strip-search machines and procedures under the Fourth Amendment.

Without that information, the D.C. Circuit plugged the strip-search machines into the strangely incoherent “administrative search” exception to the Fourth Amendment. In two pages of analysis (out of the opinion’s seventeen), the court found that strip-search machines are administrative “because the primary goal is not to determine whether any passenger has committed a crime but rather to protect the public from a terrorist attack.”

Come again?

It seems the court could have taken judicial notice that terrorist attacks are carried out through one or more criminal behaviors. People who have weapons or other dangerous articles at airport checkpoints are subject to arrest and prosecution. Crime control and public protection are one in the same, even in counterterrorism.

The “administrative search” exception to the Fourth Amendment seems to rest on the willingness of a court to abstract away the fact that individuals are prevented from proceeding where they would go (seized) while their persons, papers, and effects are rummaged (searched) for the purpose of discovering violations of the criminal laws. Earlier in the opinion, in fact, the court mocked the idea that the TSA might not “engage in ‘law enforcement, correctional, or intelligence activity.’” It surely does. This is not “administrative.” It’s criminal law enforcement.

Perhaps with a full record—a notice-and-comment rulemaking with a docket full of information and analysis—the D.C. Circuit and other courts will have the opportunity to revisit whether the TSA’s strip-search machine policies are constitutionally reasonble, or whether they’re unexamined reaction. Last week’s “loss” on the Fourth Amendment issue sets the stage for sounder thinking on the strip-search machine policy.

All of this would be obviated, of course, if airline security were restored to private hands.

Friday Links

  • “PBS used to ask, ‘If not PBS, then who?’ The answer now is: HBO, Bravo, Discovery, History, History International, Science, Planet Green, Sundance, Military, C-SPAN 1/2/3 and many more.”
  • “The fiscal problem that is destroying U.S. economic confidence is not the fiscal balance, however. It is the level of government expenditures relative to GDP.”
  • “The Pentagon’s first cyber security strategy… builds on national hysteria about threats to cybersecurity, the latest bogeyman to justify our bloated national security state.”
  • How ‘secure’ do our homes remain if police, armed with no warrant, can pound on doors at will and, on hearing sounds indicative of things moving, forcibly enter and search for evidence of unlawful activity?”
  • National debt is driving the U.S. toward a double-dip recession

Thursday Links

  • “Consistent bets for higher oil prices in futures markets have not been particularly lucrative.”
  • “The vast, swaying bulk of America’s military has absolutely nothing to do with effectively combating terrorism—including the large land armies that we deploy to Muslim countries in efforts to destroy and then reconstitute their states.”
  • “ ‘Poking and prodding’ is what good government does to perfect strangers. And that’s what the Obama administration has been doing, with unusual zeal, for the past 2 1/2 years.”
  • The Cato 2011 State Legislative Guide is designed to help state policymakers free their constituents from the burden of overextended government and addresses unfunded pension liabilities, ballooning Medicaid enrollment, massive budget gaps, failing education systems, and other important issues.
  • The Kentucky v. King decision has delivered a blow to Fourth Amendment protections:


    Read more here.

The ‘Privacy Bill of Rights’ Is in the Bill of Rights

Every lover of liberty and the Constitution should be offended by the moniker “Privacy Bill of Rights” appended to regulatory legislation Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ) introduced yesterday. As C|Net’s Declan McCullagh points out, the legislation exempts the federal government and law enforcement:

[T]he measure applies only to companies and some nonprofit groups, not to the federal, state, and local police agencies that have adopted high-tech surveillance technologies including cell phone tracking, GPS bugs, and requests to Internet companies for users’ personal information–in many cases without obtaining a search warrant from a judge.

The real “Privacy Bill of Rights” is in the Bill of Rights. It’s the Fourth Amendment.

It takes a lot of gall to put the moniker “Privacy Bill of Rights” on legislation that reduces liberty in the information economy while the Fourth Amendment remains tattered and threadbare. Nevermind “reasonable expectations”: the people’s right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures is worn down to the nub.

Senators Kerry and McCain should look into the privacy consequences of the Internal Revenue Code. How is privacy going to fare under Obamacare? How is the Department of Homeland Security doing with its privacy efforts? What is an “administrative search”?

McCullagh was good enough to quote yours truly on the new effort from Sens. Kerry and McCain: “If they want to lead on the privacy issue, they’ll lead by getting the federal government’s house in order.”

Blurry Lines, Discrete Acts, and Government Searches

I’ve written before about the “Mosaic Theory” some courts have recently employed to conclude that certain forms of government surveillance may trigger Fourth Amendment protection in the aggregate, even if the surveillance can be broken down into components that don’t fall under the traditional definition of a Fourth Amendment “search.” This has been applied specifically to high-tech forms of location tracking, where several judges have concluded that a person may have a privacy interest in the totality of their public movements over a long period of time, even though observing a person at any particular public place in a specific instance is not an intrusion on privacy. I’ve explained in that previous post why I find this reasoning compelling. Legal scholar Orin Kerr, however, remains unmoved, and suggests that divergent decisions applying the Mosaic Theory to government acquisition of stored cell phone location records effectively serve as a reductio of that theory:

To my mind, this opinion reveals the absurdity of Maynard’s mosaic theory. The analysis is all “look ma, no hands.” No one knows where the line is, or even what the line is. Sure, you could just count days of surveillance: perhaps 30 days triggers a warrant but 29 days doesn’t. But there is no reason the access to records has to be continuous. The government can skip around days, or get records from a few days here and a few days there. Who can tell how much is enough? No one knows what is revealing, because what is revealing depends on what the records actually say — and no one but the phone companies know what they say. So Judge Orenstein has to wing it, announcing that “he cannot assume” that the information would be revealing because it has breaks in time. But it’s not clear to me why the break in time matters: It’s the same net amount of data collected, so I don’t know why it matters if it was collected all at once or over several discrete periods. And how much of a break matters? If 21 days is too long, is 21 days with a one-day break enough? How about a 3-day break? One week? No one knows, it seems, not even the judge himself. [….]

There are some readers who will say that the cause of justice sometimes requires hard decisions, and that if judges need to make arbitrary calls like that, then that is what we pay them to do in order to enforce the Constitution. But as I see it, the oddity of the inquiries called for by the Maynard mosaic theory shows why it is not part of the Constitution at all. In Fourth Amendment law, the lawfulness of government conduct has always been viewed discretely: Each government act is either a search or it is not a search. Under Maynard, conduct can be a non-search if viewed in isolation but a search if viewed in context — but there is no guide to tell how much context is proper. If you want to say that certain conduct is a search, then just be direct and say it’s a search. That’s fine. But a mosaic theory, in which non-searches become searches if grouped a particular way, has no proper place in Fourth Amendment law.

Orin’s point about the seeming arbitrariness of these determinations—and the difficulties it presents to police officers who need a rule to rely on—is certainly well taken. The problem is, the government is always going to have substantial control over how any particular effort at information gathering is broken into “acts” that the courts are bound to view “discretely.” If technology makes it easy to synthesize distinct pieces of information, and Fourth Amendment scrutiny is concerned exclusively with whether each particular “act” of information acquisition constitutes a search, the government ends up with substantial ability to game the system by structuring its information gathering as a series of acquisitions, each individually below the threshold.

Let’s consider a concrete case involving location monitoring. Under the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Karo, technological location monitoring does count as a Fourth Amendment search requiring a warrant when it reveals information about where the tracking device is located within a private place, such as a home. On this theory, if the police want to be able to pinpoint a target’s location with sufficient precision to be able to tell when he goes from the garage on one side of the house to the bedroom at the other end, they’ll need a full blown search warrant. If they just want to know the general area the target is in—which cellular tower the phone is closest to, for instance—a subpoena or another less demanding form of court order might be sufficient.

There are, however, several methods of determining a phone’s precise location by triangulation, using data from multiple cell towers—and many cell networks use these methods to provide location services. The records from any one cell tower only yield a very general radius within which each phone registered at that tower can be presumed to be located. Combine the records from the three nearest towers, however, along with some measurements of signal strength and timing, and in an urban area where towers are relatively densely packed, you can often pinpoint the phone within a few meters.

Let’s suppose, then, that existing doctrine would require a warrant if police plan to go to the phone company and say: “We want you to triangulate the precise location of this phone for us over the past month, including at times when our suspect was at home.” What a hassle! They’ve got an out, though: They can issue separate requests for the records from each tower, then combine the data and do the triangulation themselves. As long as each request “viewed discretely” doesn’t yield enough information to pinpoint the phone within the home, there’s no search!

I don’t mean to suggest that, in practice, police are likely to use this particular method to circumvent the warrant requirement—though I wouldn’t be shocked either. But I think the example illustrates a problem with Orin’s categorical insistence on making the binary search/no-search determination only with respect to isolated “acts” of government, when the government itself controls how its monitoring is distributed across discrete acts.

Here’s another example, and one where I think there is a very real possibility that investigators are able, in practice, to game the standards governing electronic surveillance. According to the Justice Department’s U.S. Attorneys Manual, a “pen register” (which can be obtained much more easily than a search warrant) can be used to obtain general information about the domains or IP addresses a target is visiting, but not what particular pages somebody is reading. The idea is that there’s a sharp Fourth Amendment distinction between the “content” of a communication—its “meaning or purport”—and the non-content transactional information, such as the phone number or IP address, which tells you something about who is communicating, but not what is communicated. But there’s a loophole:

This policy does not apply to applications for pen register orders that would merely authorize collection of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, even if such IP addresses can be readily translated into URLs or portions of URLs. Similarly, this policy does not apply to the collection, at a web server, of tracing information indicating the source of requests to view a particular URL using a trap and trace order.

Emphasis added. Roughly translated, this means that the government can obtain records showing that I accessed (say) the IP address of a particular political Web site, but not which specific articles I was reading. However, they may be able to separately go to that site and request the transactional logs for each article, then search through those to determine which articles were sent to me.

It seems very likely that technology will increasingly permit this kind of multi-step searching, perhaps in ways we can’t yet predict. For all that Orin is right to worry about the practical difficulty of determining how to group discrete acts of information gathering, the consequences of dogmatically insisting on evaluating each “act” in isolation seem equally absurd if it implies that the government will have the practical ability to transform a Fourth Amendment “search” into an unregulated (or much less regulated) “non-search” just by breaking it into smaller pieces.

“To Declare [Kinetic Military Action]”

Recently, I’ve been blogging over at the Washington Examiner’s lively “Beltway Confidential” site, mostly on the subject of congressional war powers and President Obama’s Libyan adventure. Today’s post, “Obama Makes ‘Kinetic Military Action’ on the English Language” has a little fun with the administration’s wordgames and the legal rationales behind them. Other posts and a column on the subject are here, here, and here.

Today also brings a pair of columns–in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, respectively–from conservative luminaries defending the notion that Obama has the constitutional power to bomb Libya without congressional authorization. Yoo, the legal architect of George W. Bush’s Terror Presidency, chides Tea Party Republicans like Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Justin Amash of Michigan for questioning Obama’s authority to launch a nondefensive war:

Their praiseworthy opposition to the growth of federal powers at home misleads them to resist Washington’s indispensable role abroad. They mistakenly read the 18th-century constitutional text through a modern lens—for example, understanding “declare war” to mean “start war.” When the Constitution was written, a declaration of war served diplomatic notice about a change in legal relations between nations. It had little to do with launching hostilities. In the century before the Constitution, for example, Great Britain fought numerous major conflicts but declared war only once beforehand.

Similarly, in the Post, David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey write:

As commander in chief, the president has the authority to determine when and how U.S. forces are used…. When the Constitution was adopted, the power to “declare war” was not equivalent to permitting the use of military force.

The president certainly can’t derive the authority to bomb Libya from the commander-in-chief clause. As Hamilton explained in Federalist 69, that provision merely indicates that the president is the “first General and admiral” of US military forces. Important as they are, generals and admirals don’t get to decide whether and with whom we go to war.

It’s more common for presidentialists to combine a broad reading of Article II, sec. 1’s “executive Power” with an exceptionally narrow interpretation of Article I, sec. 8’s congressional power “to declare War,” to conclude that the president can start wars, leaving it up to Congress to make it official if they so choose.

One problem with that view is that virtually no one from the Founding Generation seems to have understood the clause in that way. For example, James Wilson told the Pennsylvania ratifying convention that ‘‘this system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power in declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.’’ Pierce Butler, like Wilson, had been a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention, and–to the dismay of some delegates–had actually argued for vesting the power to go to war in the president. Yet during the ratification debates, Butler assured the South Carolina legislature that the proposed constitution prevented the president from starting wars: ‘‘Some gentlemen [i.e., Butler himself] were inclined to give this power to the President; but it was objected to, as throwing into his hands the influence of a monarch, having an opportunity of involving his country in a war whenever he wished to promote her destruction.’’

As Professor Michael Ramsey puts it:

Every major figure from the founding era who commented on the matter said that the Constitution gave Congress the exclusive power to commit the nation to hostilities. Notably, this included not only people with reservations about presidential power, such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, but also strong advocates of the President’s prerogatives, such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.

“How could this be, though,” Ramsey asks, “if Congress has only the power to ‘declare War’, which we may think refers to making a (now-outmoded) formal announcement? Why can’t the President begin a war informally, merely by ordering an attack, without a declaration?” The answer:

…is that in founding-era terminology war could be “declared” either by formal announcement or by military action initiating hostilities. John Locke’s classic Two Treatises of Government from the late 17th century referred to “declar[ing] by word or action.” Blackstone and Vattel, two of the 18th century legal writers most influential in America, also used “declare” in this way…. Johnson’s dictionary gave as one definition of “declare” to “shew in open view” – which, applied to warfare, would obviously encompass military attacks…. Thus in 18th century terms initiating an attack was as much “to declare war” as was making a formal announcement; Congress’ Article I, Section 8 power is not narrowly about issuing formal announcements, but broadly about authorizing the sorts of actions that begin war.

Professor Ramsey lays out the argument in greater detail in his book The Constitution’s Text in Foreign Affairs, and in his (for my money) devastating 2002 rebuttal of Yoo [JSTOR] in the University of Chicago Law Review. Ramsey has further thoughts on the poverty of the argument from “past practice” here as does GMU law professor and Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin here.

One last point. While this doesn’t speak directly to the original meaning of the “Declare War” clause, I think it’s worth noting nonetheless:

Like Yoo, Rivkin, and Casey, I’m convinced that Obamacare’s individual mandate is unconstitutional. But consider how that view fits with their other views on federal power. They’ve argued, among other things, that the president can order up bombing raids without so much as a by-your-leave to Congress. As Yoo puts it, the president has the “right to start wars”, for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all, presumably. If the president suspects you’re a terrorist, he doesn’t need a warrant to tap your phone, and, right here in America, he can send soldiers to search your house without offending the Fourth Amendment. He can (according to Yoo, at least) ignore the federal statute prohibiting torture, and he can lock you up for the duration of the war on terror (forever?) without charges.

But there is one thing that he can never, ever do: he cannot penalize you for failure to purchase health insurance. Ours is a government of limited powers, you see.

Taken all in all, doesn’t that constitutional vision strike you as… strange?

Sen. Paul and the Writs of Assistance

Senator Rand Paul is moving beyond economic issues. His critique of the Patriot Act may be found here.

Sen. Paul lauds James Otis, Jr, the most important opponent of the writs of assistance imposed by the British prior to the American Revolution.  By invoking the name of this great patriot, Sen. Paul is trying to recall for Americans the original meaning of our Revolution and Constitution. He is practicing a politics of the original public meaning of America.

An astonishing performance.