Looking Beyond the Case at Hand

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects people, specifically their bodies, property, papers, and effects, from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. It essentially outlines the notion of our right to privacy. The primary concerns of those who wrote and ratified the Amendment revolved around “general warrants,” or warrants that authorize a search or seizure without explicitly naming the items or individuals that are to be searched or seized. They were also concerned with “writs of assistance,” which allowed soldiers to invade and search the homes of citizens. In modern times, these concerns have shifted to the government using communication technology to track, surveil, and invade the privacy of its people.

In the Aspen Institute’s video series, The Modern U.S. Supreme Court on Privacy and Civil Liberties, Jeffrey Rosen and Neal Katyal discuss various Supreme Court cases that address how the Fourth Amendment is applied in the information age. One of these cases is Jones v. United States, which addressed the question of whether the use of a warrantless tracking device on a suspect’s car was a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court unanimously found the use of the tracking device unconstitutional, which affirmed the judgement of the lower court. While Justice Scalia wrote in his Court opinion that the action was unconstitutional because it constituted a property rights violation, Justice Alito argued in his concurring opinion that in using the tracking device, the state was laying the groundwork for mass surveillance, which had the potential to be applied on a grand scale.

Another such case was that of Maryland v. King, which dealt with whether states can collect DNA samples from those arrested for serious crimes. This vote was more divided, with a 5-4 decision that the state’s collection of DNA did not violate the Fourth Amendment. In his dissent, Justice Scalia argued that this decision set a dangerous precedent–one that would allow the government to abuse the abundance of biological information within DNA to track its citizens.

Both Alito’s Jones opinion and Scalia’s King opinion highlight a crucial line of thinking that should play a role in all Supreme Court decisions: the idea of coming to a conclusion by looking beyond the case at hand. Alito recognized that the tracking device placed on Jones’ car was not an isolated instance; it pointed to an abuse of power, and if found constitutional, would set the precedent for the implementation of a system of government surveillance on a supposedly free nation. Similarly, what was in question during the King case was not just the legality of collecting saliva samples from suspects, but whether finding such an action constitutional would lay the foundation for government access to the masses’ private biological information.

This idea is not clearly not limited to decisions surrounding the Fourth Amendment; in many of the First Amendment cases we’ve studied, Justices have had to consider not just what their decision would mean for the parties in the case at question, but the legal precedent their decision would set.

This played a large role in the decision for Near v. Minnesota, for example. In his dissent, Justice Butler argued that that the Court’s decision to reverse the lower court’s ruling was too focused on the Minnesota statute’s ability to infringe on the freedom of the press in any future instance instead of its intended application. But it was the Court’s ability to see beyond the way the statute played out in the specific case of Jay Near that showed their loyalty to the principles of free speech and press. In this way, they were able to embody the First Amendment concept of “freedom for the thought that we hate.”

The First and Fourth Amendments protect rights that guarantee our freedom from government tyranny and abuse of power. Their longevity is crucial to the maintenance of our free society. This means that it’s crucial for our courts to consider their decisions not just as extensions of the law, but as the groundwork for future applications of the law. Especially in an age when the president has waged a war on the media, and evolving communication technology brings the threat of mass surveillance ever closer, we can’t afford nearsighted justice. 


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