Tag: stephen breyer

Drug-Sniffing Dogs Are Sense-Enhancing Technology

The Supreme Court heard oral argument yesterday in Florida v. Jardines, a case that examined whether bringing a drug-sniffing dog to the front door of a home looking for drugs was a Fourth Amendment search.

Having attended the oral argument (transcript; audio forthcoming), my sense is that a majority on the Court thinks dog-sniffs at front doors (absent a warrant) go too far. But few of the justices know why. The one who does is Justice Kagan.

What rationale might the Court use to decide the case? Even after United States v. Jones threw open Fourth Amendment doctrine, the instinct for using “reasonable expectation of privacy” analysis is strong. (I’ve joked that many lawyers think the word “privacy” can’t be uttered without the prefix “reasonable expectation of.”) This is where much of the discussion focused, and Justice Breyer seemed the most firmly committed to its use.

But the insufficiency of “reasonable expectation” doctrine for providing a decision rule was apparent when Breyer teed up Jardines’s counsel to knock the case out of the park. There was much discussion of what one reasonably expects at the front door of a home. Neighbors may come up. Trick-or-treaters may come up. Neighbors may come up with their dogs. The police may come to the door for a “knock and talk.” Neighbors, trick-or-treaters, dogs, and police officers may all come up and discover odors coming from the house. What makes the drug-sniffing dog unexpected?, Justice Breyer asked:

Do in fact policemen, like other people, come up and breathe? Yes. Do we expect it? Yes, we expect people to come up and breathe. But do we expect them to do what happened here? And at that point, I get into the question: What happened here?

Joelis Jardines’s counsel could not say what made the dog unexpected.

Perhaps property law draws the line that excludes government agents with drug-sniffing dogs, while allowing other visitors to come to the door. Not so. Justice Alito in particular pressed Jardines’s counsel for any case that had excluded dogs (drug-sniffing or otherwise) from the implied consent one gives to visitors on the walk and at the front door. The argument is unavailing, this idea that Florida’s property law (put into play by the majority holding in Jones, which relied on property rights) solve this case. Florida property law doesn’t exclude dogs from the implied permission it gives to lawful visitors on residential property.

None of this is to say that the government had it easy. Florida’s counsel had uttered just three sentences when Justice Kennedy informed him that the rule from Illinois v. Caballes would not carry the day. In Caballes, the Court found there to be no search at all when government agents walked a drug-sniffing dog around a car stopped for other reasons. (I attacked what I called the “Jacobsen/Caballes corollary” to the Katz decision in the Cato Institute’s brief to the Court, and also in this Jurist commentary.)

It won’t be the rule from Caballes. So what is the rationale that decides this case?

Justice Scalia was on the scent when he reasoned with the government’s counsel about what might be done with binoculars.

“As I understand the law,” he said, “the police are entitled to use binoculars to look into the house if—if the residents leave the blinds open, right?”

Florida’s counsel agreed.

“But if they can’t see clearly enough from a distance, they’re not entitled to go onto the curtilage of the house, inside the gate, and use the binoculars from that vantage point, are they?”

“They’re not, Your Honor.”

“Why isn’t it the same thing with the dog?”

Justice Kagan knows that it is. And she used Justice Scalia’s reasoning in Kyllo v. United States, the precedent that is on all fours with this case.

She recited from Kyllo: “ ‘We think that obtaining by sense-enhancing technology any information regarding the interior of the home that could not otherwise have been obtained without physical intrusion into a constitutionally protected area constitutes a search, at least where, as here, the technology in question is not in general public use.’” And she asked Florida’s counsel, “[W]hat part of that language does not apply in this case?”

“Franky’s nose is not technology,” he replied, referring to the dog. “It’s—he’s using—he’s availing himself of God-given senses in the way that dogs have helped mankind for centuries.”

The existence of dogs in human society for centuries might help the government if dogs had been used for drug-detection all this time. And then only if the question was what it is reasonable to expect.

What matters is that a drug-sniffing dog is indeed a form of sense-enhancing technology. Selected for its strong sense of smell, and trained to convey when particular odors are present, a drug-sniffing dog makes perceptible to law enforcement what is otherwise imperceptible.

And that is the very definition of searching. At least as Black’s Law Dictionary has it: “‘Search’ consists of looking for or seeking out that which is otherwise concealed from view.”

Police officers use dogs to search for drugs and other materials in which they are interested but which they cannot see by themselves. A drug-sniffing dog is a cuddly chromatograph.

And just now, quietly, you have seen at work the rationale that the Supreme Court should use to decide Florida v. Jardines. Was it a search to bring a drug-sniffing dog to the front door of a house? The Court should apply the plain meaning of the word “search” to the facts of the case that has come before it. There’s no need for doctrine at all.

A Misimpression of Constitutional Moment

A little bit of errant security information made its way into the Supreme Court’s oral argument in U.S. v. Jones this week. Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, and Breyer were testing the fairly narrow limits of the position advocated by Jones’ counsel. He focused on invasion of Jones’ “possessory interest” in his car when the government placed a GPS device on it.

If the Court were to find that attachment of a device invaded Jones’ Fourth Amendment interests, this wouldn’t protect him from a system of cameras that developed much the same information, noted Justice Ginsburg. Justice Kagan continued:

What is the difference really? I’m told — maybe this is wrong, but I’m told that if somebody goes to London, almost every place that person goes there is a camera taking pictures, so that the police can put together snapshots of where everybody is all the time. So why is this different from that.

Justice Breyer continued down this line:

And in fact, those cameras in London actually enabled them, if you watched them, I got the impression, to track the bomber who was going to blow up the airport in Glasgow and to stop him before he did. So there are many people who will say that that kind of surveillance is worthwhile, and there are others like you who will say, no, that’s a bad thing.

I’ve spent a lot of time examining terrorism incidents, and the scenario described by Justice Breyer does not sound familiar to me. There was an attack on the Glasgow airport in 2007. That attack was a qualified success—heavily qualified: one of the attackers incinerated himself in the course of causing minor injuries to a few standers-by and only modestly damaging the airport. I’ve found no report that surveillance cameras were involved in monitoring or apprehending the attackers—much less stopping the attack—or in stopping any similar-sounding attack.

Security cameras and surveillance generally are over-rated as preventives of crime and terrorism. They are some help in discovering information about crime after the fact. No help is needed when a major incident turns the eyes of an entire city or nation toward discovering what happened.

I doubt that the case will turn on Justice Breyer’s apparent error, but it clearly influences his thinking, and he shared it with other members of the Court. The people he counts as saying surveillance is worthwhile do not have prevention of an airport bombing in Glasgow to back them up.

Consistency

Justice Breyer appeared on Good Morning America today, telling George Stephanopoulous that burning the Koran may not be protected by the First Amendment. As Breyer puts it, this may be akin to “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” since internet-driven publicity could bring retaliatory violence here or abroad.

Let me get this straight – burning a Koran isn’t protected the same way that burning a Bible or the American flag is, or a neo-Nazi march through a neighborhood of Holocaust survivors. The “crowded theater” is now global, and all someone has to do to diminish the First Amendment rights of all Americans is threaten to use violence if an offending word is uttered.

That’s not a consistent interpretation of the First Amendment, but Breyer’s record of consistency isn’t very good when constitutional rights may put lives at risk.

Liberty Requires Risk

That’s the message of my recent op-ed in the Daily Caller. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initial reaction to the McDonald v. City of Chicago decision was to say that McDonald would have no impact on government’s ability to keep guns “out of the hands of criminals and terrorists.” This was a reference to legislation that Bloomberg supports that would allow the federal government to bar anyone the Attorney General thinks is a terrorist from purchasing a firearm. Not convicted of a crime in support of terrorism — that would make them a felon and already unable to purchase or own a firearm. No, being suspected of activity in support of or preparation for terrorism means you get the same treatment as if you were a convicted felon or had been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. So much for due process.

While D.C. v. Heller is the relevant decision (the AG’s double secret probation list is a federal, not state action), the premise of this legislation needs to be refuted. The proposition that guns and gun ownership are uniquely dangerous such that the right to keep and bear arms must be treated as a second-class provision of the Bill of Rights is willfully blind of the other instances where society accepts risk by safeguarding liberty in the face of foreseeable hazards. Justice Stephen Breyer embraced this misguided concept –– that the right to keep and bear arms is an enumerated, but non-fundamental, right that deserves a lesser degree of protection than the rest of the provisions of the Bill of Rights — in his McDonald dissent.

I counter that notion in this podcast:

Related thoughts from Ilya Somin here.