Warrantless spying violates spirit of law

A recent ruling allows law enforcement officers to place GPS tracking devices on vehicles without getting a warrant. (credit: Tommy Hofman/Assistant Photo Editor) A recent ruling allows law enforcement officers to place GPS tracking devices on vehicles without getting a warrant. (credit: Tommy Hofman/Assistant Photo Editor)
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Last week, an appeals court in California decided that law enforcement agencies are now legally allowed to place GPS trackers on people’s vehicles without their consent. While I am certainly not an expert on constitutional law, there is something slightly disturbing about this verdict.

The case concerned Juan Pineda-Moreno of Oregon, who was being monitored by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), as he was suspected of being part of a larger marijuana-growing operation. In an attempt to gain more information about his whereabouts and build a stronger case, DEA agents snuck onto Pineda-Moreno’s property and stuck a tracking device on the underside of his car. Over a four-month period, the DEA used the tracking device to keep track of Pineda-Moreno’s movements. All of this work was done without the possession of any warrants. Eventually, with the use of evidence gathered from the GPS tracking devices, Pineda-Moreno was arrested on drug-related charges and indicted.

Pineda-Moreno appealed the decision, but a federal court ruled that the DEA did not violate any laws. Court documents showed that covert DEA agents had entered Pineda-Moreno’s driveway and placed the GPS device on his car. Since there were no “No Trespassing” or “No Entry” signs on Pineda-Moreno’s property, the DEA had not, according to the court, violated his Fourth Amendment rights. But while this might be deemed legal, it is simply not in the spirit of the law.

The case certainly proved that Pineda-Moreno was in violation of drug-related laws, but there is no way that the DEA knew this for sure before they started monitoring him. The reason search warrants exist is so that law enforcement agencies have to prove to a judge that there is probable cause for suspecting an individual. Soon, the cops or some other agency from the alphabet soup that exists in Washington, D.C. could place a GPS — or in some cases even a camera — in your car because they wrongly suspect you for some crime. They could then maintain this surveillance and monitor you for months — and there would be no way for you to know.

What is ridiculous about this whole affair is the idea that the lack of warning signs somehow reduced the expectancy of privacy. While it is clear that the DEA faces a tough task and is entitled to use every loophole in the law to its advantage, the fact that it is violating what I believe is the basic right to avoid unreasonable search should not be condoned. Tomorrow, law enforcement could simply place trackers on everyone’s car, and that would certainly make it easier to solve crimes. But in a country that prides itself on freedom, such a cheap act is reprehensible to say the least.

In the larger picture, the DEA’s actions reflect more than ever the increasing encroachment of government into our private lives, under the guise of public safety. As one dissenting judge in the case put it, “1984 may have come a bit later than predicted, but it’s here at last.” He was right to say this because this judgment not only violates our human rights, but also places more power in the hands of the rich. In analyzing the court’s decision, one of the major reasons Juan Pineda-Moreno’s property was accessible to DEA agents was because he did not have a fence. Now, imagine a well-off suburban neighborhood where all of the houses have gates and fences. In this scenario, no one would be able to enter private property and attach tracking devices to personal-use vehicles.

So, if you are rich enough to afford a fence around your property and put up signs forbidding individuals from trespassing on it, you would be free from unethical surveillance. The fact that law enforcement agents are able to take advantage of such a situation, encroach upon your rights, and perform what I believe is an illegal operation is extremely disappointing. Often, agencies have validated their actions by pointing to pressing issues such as national security, but in this case violations of the rights of an American citizen were completely unwarranted.

I hope that the federal courts carefully consider Pineda-Moreno’s appeal and reverse this abhorrent verdict. While our safety is important, it should never be achieved at the cost of our freedom.