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Reviewing the Fourth Amendment cases of OT2011

The Fourth Amendment docket from the recently completed Supreme Court Term included four cases. Here’s a run-down of the cases, with my thoughts on their significance to the development of Fourth Amendment law.

The most important Fourth Amendment case of the Term was United States v. Jones, widely known as “the GPS case.” The FBI installed a GPS device on the suspect’s car and tracked it for twenty-eight days. Most lower courts had ruled such conduct was not a Fourth Amendment search under United States v. Knotts, a 1983 case involving a radio beeper. To most lower courts, a passage from Knotts had a clear answer to GPS surveillance: “A person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another.”

The Court’s decision was a surprise on several levels. First, the Court was unanimous as to the result; and second, the Justices split almost evenly along two equally underdeveloped rationales. Justice Scalia’s majority opinion for five Justices decided the case by purporting to rediscover a lost trespass test in Fourth Amendment law. Because installing a GPS device on the car would have been a trespass under eighteenth-century property law, Scalia asserted, the installation was a search. Followers of Justice Scalia’s Fourth Amendment opinions weren’t surprised that Scalia would want to move the Court in that direction: Justice Scalia has long wanted to find ways to move Fourth Amendment law towards what he sees as an originalist standard and away from the 1960s-era Katz framework. But as I explain in a forthcoming article for the Supreme Court Review, Justice Scalia’s claim that Fourth Amendment law adopted a trespass standard before Katz is itself a myth of the Katz Court. Although pre-Katz cases sometimes focused on physical entry, they did not adopt a trespass test. Given the protean nature of trespass concepts, the introduction of a trespass test in Fourth Amendment law under the guise of originalism is likely to raise many more questions than it answers.

The two concurring opinions in Jones suggested even more dramatic and far-reaching changes. Joined by a total of five Justices, the two concurring opinions offer a reconceptualization of the basic building block of Fourth Amendment analysis: Instead of asking whether individual government intrusions are searches, they suggest, the Court should look to whether aggregated acts of evidence collection and evidence are searches. I’ll refer the reader to another forthcoming article for the details, if any are interested. Combining the three opinions together, all nine Justices wrote or joined opinions in Jones suggesting a considerable reworking of traditional Fourth Amendment doctrine. All in a decision ruling nine to zero in favor of a criminal defendant who ran a massive narcotics conspiracy.

The second most prominent Fourth Amendment case last Term was Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, sometimes known as “the prison strip search case.” This case considered whether the Fourth Amendment allows detention facilities such as jails and prisons to force every person admitted to the facility to strip naked and be observed at close distance before entering the facility. In a five-to-four opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Court ruled that such observation was generally allowed. Jails are dangerous places, and the authorities need general rules to keep them safe without judicial micromanagement; as long as the person was to be admitted to the general prison population, such a search was permissible. Importantly, however, both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito authored concurring opinions emphasizing that the Court’s general rule might have exceptions. Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, and argued that the Court could better balance the interests with a rule that such searches are unreasonable absent reasonable suspicion that the individual possesses contraband if the arrest was for “a minor offense that does not involve drugs or violence.”

If Jones stands out for how surprising the opinions were, Florence is the opposite. It’s a classic balancing case in which the Justices tried to weigh the different interests and look for plausible lines to draw. The five Justices nominated by Republican Presidents weighed the interests more in favor of the jail administrators; the four Justices nominated by Democratic Presidents weighed the interests more in favor of the inmates. Although a lot of people have strong views about the case, I don’t see much novel ground covered here as a matter of Fourth Amendment law.

That brings us to our two remedies cases, Messerschmidt v. Millender and Ryburn v. Huff, both civil cases brought under 42 U.S.C. 1983. In both cases, the Court reversed Ninth Circuit rulings that had denied qualified immunity. Ryburn was the easier case. The Court reversed summarily and unanimously a divided Ninth Circuit ruling authored by a district judge sitting by designation that was also joined by Chief Judge Kozinski (who reveals his libertarian streak in Fourth Amendment cases).

Messerschmidt is the more interesting remedies case, in part because it involved the all-too-common practice among investigators of being sloppy with the particularity of warrants. The Fourth Amendment requires warrants to particularly describe the property to be seized, and the warrants must develop probable cause for each of those items to be seized. In the suppression context, which is by far the more common context in which warrant particularity is litigated, courts tend to be quite generous with defects in particularity. If the police add in a “catch all” clause in the warrant that is obviously overly broad, courts usually just sever the obviously unconstitutional part of the warrant and allow the evidence if it was obtained by reliance on other parts of the warrant. (See, for example, the Sixth Circuit’s 2001 decision in United States v. Greene.) As a result, officers often aren’t as careful with particularity as they should be. By arising in a civil setting, Messerschmidt didn’t allow the easy path of severability often seen in criminal cases.

A divided Court in Messerschmidt ruled that qualified immunity applied by taking a rather generous view of what kind of evidence might be present and relevant to a domestic dispute involving a gun fired by a gang member. As a practical matter, the most important aspect of the majority opinion is its conclusion that seeking and obtaining the approval of higher-ups bolstered the case of qualified immunity by indicating that the officer was not at personal fault. This ruling is in in significant tension with United States v. Leon, which generally requires only a facial review of the warrant to see if a defect is so significant that suppression is warranted. (The Court has generally equated the good-faith exception in the criminal setting and qualified immunity standard in the civil setting, so precedents from one context should be applicable to the other.) At the same time, the ruling is consistent with the recent trend of Roberts Court cases on Fourth Amendment remedies in emphasizing the personal culpability of individual officers as a prerequisite to liability. In my view, focusing on personal culpability is problematic: Bad faith is hard for defendants to uncover and the appearance of good faith is relatively easy for the police to game. Under Messerschmidt, even if the warrant has a serious defect, review by higher-ups may provide an extra defense against not only personal liability but suppression of evidence. It’s too early to tell whether lower courts will connect those dots and use Messerschmidt in this way, but it seems quite plausible that they will.

Recommended Citation: Orin Kerr, Reviewing the Fourth Amendment cases of OT2011, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 10, 2012, 2:05 PM),