Supreme Court Reinforces Jones Conception of 4th Amendment

In a per curiam opinion this week, Grady v. North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court reinforced recent 4th Amendment decisions in holding that when the government physically occupies private property for the purpose of obtaining information, it engages in a search under the 4th Amendment.

The State of North Carolina subjects certain repeat offenders to a lifetime of satellite-based monitoring (SBM) after they complete their sentences.  The plaintiff, Torrey Dale Grady, argued that such a program represents a violation of his 4th Amendment rights under recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions, including a 2012 case called United States v. Jones (installing a GPS tracker on a suspect’s car represents a search) and a 2013 case called Florida v. Jardines (using a drug-sniffing dog on a suspect’s porch represents a search).

The Supreme Court agreed with Grady that such monitoring constitutes a search. In light of these decisions, it follows that a state also conducts a search when it attaches a device to a person’s body, without consent, for the purpose of tracking that individual’s movements.

In concluding otherwise, the North Carolina Court of Appeals apparently placed decisive weight on the fact that the State’s monitoring program is civil in nature. See Jones, ___ N. C. App., at ___, 750 S. E. 2d, at 886 (“the instant case … involves a civil SBM proceeding”). “It is well settled,” however, “that the Fourth Amendment’s protection extends beyond the sphere of criminal investigations,” Ontario v. Quon, 560 U. S. 746, 755 (2010), and the government’s purpose in collecting information does not control whether the method of collection constitutes a search. A building inspector who enters a home simply to ensure compliance with civil safety regulations has undoubtedly conducted a search under the Fourth Amendment. 

The court also rejected North Carolina’s somewhat strange argument that its monitoring program is not meant to collect information:

In its brief in opposition to certiorari, the State faults Grady for failing to introduce “evidence about the State’s implementation of the SBM program or what information, if any, it currently obtains through the monitoring process.” Brief in Opposition 11. Without evidence that it is acting to obtain information, the State argues, “there is no basis upon which this Court can determine whether North Carolina conducts a ‘search’ of an offender enrolled in its SBM program.” Ibid. (citing Jones, 565 U. S., at ___, n. 5 (slip op., at 7, n. 5) (noting that a government intrusion is not a search unless “done to obtain information”)). In other words, the State argues that we cannot be sure its program for satellite-based monitoring of sex offenders collects any information. If the very name of the program does not suffice to rebut this contention, the text of the statute surely does:

“The satellite-based monitoring program shall use a system that provides all of the following:
“(1) Time-correlated and continuous tracking of the geographic location of the subject ….
“(2) Reporting of subject’s violations of prescriptive and proscriptive schedule or location requirements.”
N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §14–208.40(c).

The State’s program is plainly designed to obtain information. And since it does so by physically intruding on a subject’s body, it effects a Fourth Amendment search.

The Court did not, however, examine whether the program constitutes an unreasonable, and therefore unconstitutional, search.  The case was remanded to a lower court to sort through that issue.

Notwithstanding the reasonability issue, this ruling reinforces a heartening trend in 4th Amendment jurisprudence away from the nebulous “reasonable expectation of privacy” standard and toward a more concrete “common-law trespass” standard, at least insofar as searches of private property are concerned.