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: