Supreme Court GPS Ruling

Today, the Supreme Court in a unanimous vote, ruled that police must obtain a warrant before attaching a GPS tracker to a suspect’s vehicle. This is one of the few decisions in quite a while that hasn’t reduced rights under the Fourth Amendment. It is also one of the first major cases testing the constitutionality of a digital technology in this way.

What will the ramifications be? It’s easy to speculate one way or the other, but here are a couple of thoughts concerning the ruling. A former police officer friend of mine pointed out that good old helicopters and unmarked cars still work pretty well for the police. Even here in the neighborhood of Silicon Valley, our law enforcement people still use these lower tech methods.

Another individual commented that police can still track suspects via the GPS in smartphones. That’s true, but in that case, a citizen can always turn off their smartphone and retain some control of knowledge of their whereabouts…unlike a GPS unit secreted under their car.

Here’s a third thought…not right on point for this case, but related. What about the use of police dogs to sniff for drugs in students’ private cars while parked at school?

As always, there will be unintended consequences flowing from this ruling. Even with the fine minds that sit at the Supreme Court considering all they can, there always are!


The Netizens That Roared

Yesterday, we saw quite an uproar over SOPA and PIPA, and watched as a number of supporters of the bills in Congress either switched sides or walked back from the bills.

Apparently, Google’s petition against the bills got 4-plus million signatures, and there were several other petitions online that also picked up large numbers. These, in combination with many sites going dark, have caused the wheels to come off the two bills, and it’s one of Hollywood’s few losses ever in Washington.

Opposition to the bills appears to cross liberal and conservative lines. I don’t think people are seriously opposed to stopping piracy at all, but the blunt force approach of this bill was just too much. It has been noted that a person could actually be prosecuted and convicted, and get one more year of jail time for downloading a Michael Jackson song than the doctor that killed him has been sentenced to! My objection is that the enforcement in the bills is similar to a private attorney general action in that a content provider could get a court order and close down a site, with no ability to have a day in court, present evidence, or appeal. The site is just out of business, even due to a link posted by a third party on the site. (This is also why the American Bar Association opposed the bills.)

It’s not hard to predict that these bills in another form will reappear and start winging their way through Congress again. Let’s hope this time that Hollywood will agree to meet with the tech and web folks, and craft something that will work on piracy, but not cause the wholesale destruction of free speech rights on the web.

The Supreme Court & Broadcast Decency

This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in consolidated cases concerning the FCC’s regulation of decency. Chief Justice Roberts (as the only justice with young children) remarked that “All we are asking for, what the government is asking for, is a few channels where … they are not going to hear the S-word, the F-word, they are not going to see nudity.”

Justice Kagen expressed concern that the enforcement is inconsistent, pointing out the FCC opted not to fine ABC-TV for airing the expletive-laden movie “Saving Private Ryan” uncut. “It’s like nobody can use dirty words or nudity except for Steven Spielberg,” she commented.

Justice Stephen Breyer suggested the Court could look at the case narrowly and not strike down all of the FCC’s rules. “Does this case in front of us really call for the earthshaking decision that you all have argued for,” he asked ABC-TV attorney Seth Waxman.
While it’s always a roll of the dice to try to predict what the Supreme Court will do in a case- and we won’t see a decision in this one until likely the end of the term this summer, I believe Justice Breyer’s comment probably points to how the decision will come down. This court won’t be willing to throw out the decency rules wholesale, no matter that broadcasters have correctly argued that there are so many alternatives that decency policing is unnecessary. I predict that it will be a narrow holding, possibly setting up different guidelines for radio and television. We’ll know if I’m correct in July!