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People v. Weaver

May 12, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lippman, Chief Judge

Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.

In the early morning hours of December 21, 2005, a State Police Investigator crept underneath defendant's street-parked van and placed a global positioning system (GPS) tracking device inside the bumper. The device remained in place for 65 days, constantly monitoring the position of the van. This nonstop surveillance was conducted without a warrant.

The GPS device, known as a "Q-ball," once attached to the van, operated in conjunction with numerous satellites, from which it received tracking data, to fix the van's location. The Q-Ball readings indicated the speed of the van and pinpointed its location within 30 feet. Readings were taken approximately every minute while the vehicle was in motion, but less often when it was stationary. The device's battery required replacement during the monitoring period, which resulted in yet another nocturnal visit by the investigator to the van's undercarriage. To download the location information retrieved by the Q-Ball, the investigator would simply drive past the van and press a button on a corresponding receiver unit, causing the tracking history to be transmitted to and saved by a computer in the investigator's vehicle.

It is not clear from the record why defendant was placed under electronic surveillance. What is clear is that he was eventually charged with and tried in a single proceeding for crimes relating to two separate burglaries one committed on July 2005 at the Latham Meat Market and the other on Christmas Eve of the same year at the Latham K-Mart.

The prosecution sought to have admitted at trial GPS readings showing that, on the evening of the Latham K-Mart burglary at 7:26, defendant's van traversed the store's parking lot at a speed of six miles per hour. Without a hearing, County Court denied defendant's motion to suppress the GPS data, and the electronic surveillance evidence was received. The additional evidence against defendant came primarily from Amber Roche, who was charged in connection with the Latham Meat Market burglary and was deemed an accomplice in the commission of that burglary.

Roche testified that prior to the date of the burglary, she drove through the parking lot of the Latham K-Mart with defendant and John Scott Chiera, while the men looked for the best place to break into the store. She stated that on the night of the burglary, defendant and Chiera left her apartment wearing dark clothing. When they returned, Chiera's hand was bleeding. Other evidence showed that, during the burglary, a jewelry case inside the K-Mart had been smashed and stained with blood containing DNA matching that of Chiera. Notably, Roche's initial statement to the police did not implicate defendant in the K-Mart burglary, but rather indicated that Chiera had committed the crime with a different individual. A few weeks later, Roche gave the police a second statement implicating defendant instead of that individual.

The jury convicted defendant of two counts relating to the K-Mart burglary, but acquitted him of the counts pertaining to the Meat Market burglary. The ensuing judgment of conviction was affirmed by a divided Appellate Division. The majority rejected defendant's argument that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated by the warrantless placement and use of the GPS device, and found that he had no greater right to relief under the State Constitution. It premised its decision largely upon what it deemed to be defendant's reduced expectation of privacy in the exterior of his vehicle (52 AD3d 138 [3d Dept 2008]).

One Justice dissented and would have suppressed the evidence obtained from the GPS tracking device. The dissenting opinion agreed that there was no Fourth Amendment violation, but found a violation of defendant's corresponding rights under the State Constitution stating that citizens "have a reasonable expectation that their every move will not be continuously and indefinitely monitored by a technical device without their knowledge, except where a warrant has been issued on probable cause" (id. at 145). The dissenting Justice granted defendant leave to appeal and we now reverse.

The Fourth Amendment, read literally, protects property and for a long time was read to do no more. In Olmstead v United States (277 US 438 [1928]), the Supreme Court, adhering to the notion that a Fourth Amendment infringement was essentially one affecting property,*fn1 refused to find that a telephone wiretap was a search within the amendment's meaning because the wiretap involved no trespass into the houses or offices of the defendants. Justice Brandeis differed and offered as an alternative to the majority's understanding of the amendment this much more encompassing view:

"The protection guaranteed by the Amendments [the Fourth and Fifth] is much broader in scope [than the protection of property]. The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man's spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men. To protect that right, every unjustifiable intrusion by the Government upon the privacy of the individual, whatever the means employed, must be deemed a violation of the Fourth Amendment. And the use, as evidence in a criminal proceeding, of facts ascertained by such intrusion must be deemed a violation of the Fifth"

(id. at 478-479).

Brandeis's dissent was resonant, even in the years immediately after the case's decision. And, some 12 years later, at the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1938, the view that there should be constitutional protection against governmental infringements of privacy not involving any offense against property found vindication in this State's analogue to the Fourth Amendment, only then adopted. Our constitutional provision (art I, § 12), in addition to tracking the language of the Fourth Amendment, provides:

"The right of the people to be secure against unreasonable interception of telephone and telegraph communications shall not be violated, and ex parte orders or warrants shall issue only upon oath or affirmation that there is reasonable ground to believe that evidence of crime may be thus obtained, and identifying the particular means of communication, and particularly describing the person or persons whose communications are to be intercepted and the purpose thereof."

On the federal level, however, Brandeis's seminal and eloquent recognition that privacy and not property per se was the essential value protected by the Fourth Amendment was slower to find definitive doctrinal acceptance. Finally, however, in Katz v United States (389 US 347, 357 [1967]) the Supreme Court overruled Olmstead, holding:

"the underpinnings of Olmstead and Goldman have been so eroded by our subsequent decisions that the 'trespass' doctrine there enunciated can no longer be regarded as controlling. The Government's activities in electronically listening to and recording the petitioner's words violated the privacy upon which he justifiably relied while using the telephone booth and thus constituted a 'search and seizure' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The fact that the electronic device employed to achieve that end did not happen to penetrate the wall of the booth can have no constitutional significance"

(id. at 353).

Since Katz, the existence of a privacy interest within the Fourth Amendment's protective ambit has been understood to depend upon whether the individual asserting the interest has demonstrated a subjective expectation of privacy and whether that expectation would be accepted as reasonable by society (see Katz, 389 US at 361 [Harlan, J., concurring]). However, while Katz purported to de-emphasize location as a determinant in judging the reach of the Fourth Amendment, the analysis it seemed to require naturally reintroduced considerations of place back into the calculus since the social reasonableness of an individual's expectation of privacy will quite often turn upon the quality of the space inhabited or traversed, i.e., whether it is public or private space. An individual has been held to have a significantly reduced expectation of privacy when passing along a public way, particularly in a motor vehicle.

The amalgam of issues with which we here deal, arising from the use of a new and potentially doctrine-forcing surveillance technology by government law enforcers to track movements over largely public terrain, was most significantly dealt with by the Supreme Court in the post-Katz era in United States v Knotts (460 US 276 [1983]). There, government agents placed a beeper in a five-gallon drum of chloroform to track the container's movements. They then followed the vehicle that transported the container using both visual surveillance and a monitor that received signals from the beeper. Although the officers lost sight of the vehicle, it was eventually located at Knotts's cabin. The Court noted that, although Knotts had an expectation of privacy in his cabin, there was no such expectation attending the movements of the vehicle transporting the container (id. at 282). "A person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares," the Court observed, "has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his [or her] movements from one place to another" (id. at 281). This was so, said the Court, because the particular route taken, stops made and ultimate destination are apparent to any member of the public who happens to observe the vehicle's movements (see id. at 281-282). The use of the beeper in addition to the visual surveillance did not change the Court's analysis: "Nothing in the Fourth Amendment prohibited the police from augmenting the sensory faculties bestowed upon them at birth with such enhancement as science and technology afforded them in this case" (id. at 282).

At first blush, it would appear that Knotts does not bode well for Mr. Weaver, for in his case, as in Knotts, the surveillance technology was utilized for the purpose of tracking the progress of a vehicle over what may be safely supposed to have been predominantly public roads and, as in Knotts, these movements were at least in theory exposed to "anyone who wanted to look" (id. at 281). This, however, is where the similarity ends.

Knotts involved the use of what we must now, more than a quarter of a century later, recognize to have been a very primitive tracking device. The device was, moreover, used in a focused binary police investigation for the discreet purpose of ascertaining the destination of a particular container of chloroform. And, in this application, during the single trip from the place where the chloroform was purchased to the Knotts cabin, the beeper was fairly described by the Court as having functioned merely as an enhancing adjunct to the surveilling officers' senses; the officers actively followed the vehicle and used the beeper as a means of maintaining and regaining actual visual contact with it. The technology was, in this context, not unconvincingly analogized by the Court to a searchlight, a marine glass, or a field glass (id. at 283, citing United States v Lee, 274 US 559, 563 [1927]).

Here, we are not presented with the use of a mere beeper to facilitate visual surveillance during a single trip. GPS is a vastly different and exponentially more sophisticated and powerful technology that is easily and cheaply deployed and has virtually unlimited and remarkably precise tracking capability. With the addition of new GPS satellites, the technology is rapidly improving so that any person or object, such as a car, may be tracked with uncanny accuracy to virtually any interior or exterior location, at any time and regardless of atmospheric conditions. Constant, relentless tracking of anything is now not merely possible but entirely practicable, indeed much more practicable than the surveillance conducted in Knotts. GPS is not a mere enhancement of human sensory capacity, it facilitates a new technological perception of the world in which the situation of any object may be followed and exhaustively recorded over, in most cases, a practically unlimited period. The potential for a similar capture of information or "seeing" by law enforcement would require, at a minimum, millions of additional police officers and cameras on every street lamp.

That such a surrogate technological deployment is not particularly when placed at the unsupervised discretion of agents of the state "engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime" (Johnson v United States, 333 US 10, 14 [1948]) compatible with any reasonable notion of personal privacy or ordered liberty would appear to us obvious. One need only consider what the police may learn, practically effortlessly, from planting a single device. The whole of a person's progress through the world, into both public and private spatial spheres, can be charted and recorded over lengthy periods possibly limited only by the need to change the transmitting unit's batteries. Disclosed in the data retrieved from the transmitting unit, nearly instantaneously with the press of a button on the highly portable receiving unit, will be trips the indisputably private nature of which takes little imagination to conjure: trips to the psychiatrist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club, the criminal defense attorney, the by-the-hour motel, the union meeting, the mosque, synagogue or church, the gay bar and on and on. What the technology yields and records with breathtaking quality and quantity, is a highly detailed profile, not simply of where we go, but by easy inference, of our associations political, religious, amicable and amorous, to name only a few and of the pattern of our professional and avocational pursuits. When multiple GPS devices are utilized, even more precisely ...

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