March 26, 2023

Opinion: In the GPS Case, Issues of Privacy and Technology

The Supreme Court’s decision last week in United States v. Jones presents the disturbing possibility that the answer is yes. In Jones, the court held that long-term GPS surveillance of a suspect’s car violated the Fourth Amendment. The justices’ 9-to-0 decision to protect constitutional liberty from invasive police use of technology was celebrated across the ideological spectrum.

Perhaps too quickly. Jones, along with other recent decisions, may turn the Fourth Amendment into a ticking time bomb, set to self-destruct — and soon — in the face of rapidly emerging technology.

Dog sniffs. Heat sensors. Helicopter flyovers. Are these “searches” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment? The court has struggled with these questions over the years.

Writing for the court in Jones, Justice Antonin Scalia looked to the 18th century for guidance. In his view, attaching the GPS was the sort of physical invasion of property the framers had in mind when they wrote the Bill of Rights.

Though Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. agreed that GPS tracking was a search, he ridiculed Justice Scalia for focusing on “conduct that might have provided grounds in 1791 for a suit for trespass to chattels.” For Justice Alito, the risk the GPS posed was loss of privacy, not property. Instead the question was whether long-term GPS tracking violated today’s “reasonable expectations of privacy,” not those of another era. As a matter of existing doctrine, he asked the right question, but when applied to the government, the standard he used could turn our lives into the proverbial open book, and soon.

Focusing on public expectations of privacy means that our rights change when technology does. As Justice Alito blithely said: “New technology may provide increased convenience or security at the expense of privacy, and many people may find the tradeoff worthwhile.”

But aren’t constitutional rights intended to protect our liberty even when the public accepts “increased convenience or security at the expense of privacy”? Fundamental rights remain fundamental in the face of time and new inventions.

Paradoxically, Justice Scalia’s approach will better protect privacy rights over the long term. (He didn’t deny the importance of today’s expectations; he simply stressed that at the very least, the Fourth Amendment protects rights we had when the framers drafted the Constitution.) Still, his approach is problematic. There isn’t always an available 18th-century analog for current government conduct, like GPS tracking. Justice Alito facetiously suggested that the only 18th-century analog would have been a constable hiding in the back of someone’s carriage. (When Justice Scalia agreed, Justice Alito wryly remarked that “this would have required either a gigantic coach, a very tiny constable, or both.”) And when 18th-century analogs run out, the court is left with its reasonable expectation test.

In a related case, Kyllo v. United States, even Justice Scalia held that police use of a thermal imager to detect marijuana “grow lamps” within a home was a search — but only so long as such technology was “not in general public use.” There’s that time bomb: expanding use of technology narrows rights.

Among the justices in the Jones case, only Sonia Sotomayor insisted that fundamental rights not be hostage to technological change. She called into question the court’s longstanding reliance on expectations of privacy, which she deemed “ill-suited to the digital age.” She suggested reconsidering the rule that the police can, without a warrant, get the vast amounts of information about ourselves that we give to third parties. To her, sharing our secrets — including e-mail and banking histories — with someone else does not necessarily mean the government gets access, too. It is too bad her separate opinion mustered no other votes.

Barry Friedman is a professor at the New York University School of Law and the author of “The Will of the People: How Public Opinion Has Influenced the Supreme Court and Shaped the Meaning of the Constitution.”

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Wal-Mart Case Is a Blow for Big Cases and Their Lawyers

The court’s decision will not just make it harder to bring big, ambitious employment class-action cases asserting discrimination based on sex, race or other factors, legal experts said. In the majority opinion, the court set higher barriers for bringing several types of nationwide class actions against a large company with many branches.

In its majority opinion, the court essentially said that if lawyers brought a nationwide class action against an employer, they would have to offer strong evidence of a nationwide practice or policy that hurt the class. In the Wal-Mart case, the court wrote that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated that Wal-Mart had any nationwide policies or practices that discriminated against women. The opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, noted that Wal-Mart’s official corporate policy opposed discrimination, while the company gave the managers at its more than 3,400 stores considerable discretion over pay and promotions.

“In a company of Wal-Mart’s size and geographical scope, it is quite unbelievable that all managers would exercise their discretion in a common way without some common direction,” Justice Scalia wrote.

Heidi Li Feldman, a professor at Georgetown Law Center, said similar reasoning might make it tougher for plaintiffs to bring a class action against a mortgage lender accusing it of having a nationwide policy of defrauding borrowers. “A big mortgage broker might say, ‘At the national level, we have policies to abide by all of the rules and regulations that are applicable, and we delegate a lot of discretion to our branches,’ ” she said.

The ruling was widely hailed by business groups, some of which filed amicus briefs urging the court to limit class actions.

“We applaud the Supreme Court for affirming that mega-class actions such as this one are completely inconsistent with federal law,” said Robin S. Conrad, executive vice president of the United States Chamber of Commerce’s National Chamber Litigation Center. “Too often the class-action device is twisted and abused to force businesses to choose between settling meritless lawsuits or potentially facing financial ruin.”

The ruling will push plaintiffs’ lawyers into filing fewer huge class actions and more cases on behalf of individuals or smaller groups, lawyers said. That will raise costs and give lawyers less incentive to take on class actions and other complex litigation. The Wal-Mart case, for example, has stretched for a decade, with lawyers and the legal foundation that brought the case expecting to receive some portion of the back pay for 1.5 million current and former Wal-Mart employees if they eventually won the case in court or reached a settlement.

The Supreme Court decision “strikes a blow to those who face discrimination in the workplace to be able to join together and hold companies, especially large companies, accountable for the full range of discrimination they may be responsible for,” said Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center.

In his opinion, Justice Scalia said it was unacceptable to allow employment discrimination lawsuits to proceed as huge class actions when monetary awards would be based on a broad formula per plaintiff, without having an individual assessment of how much each plaintiff had suffered.

He wrote that to allow that to happen in the Wal-Mart case, the largest employment class action in American history, would have been hugely unfair to Wal-Mart because it might have had to pay out damages without many of the plaintiffs demonstrating how much they were injured.

Paul Grossman, a lawyer in Los Angeles for the Paul Hastings firm who represents many employers, including Wal-Mart, in employment lawsuits, said employers were seeing many unmeritorious class-action cases. “Now you need a real class action with similarly situated people where common issues predominate,” he said.

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