Bad Case Law?
Or Bad Police Work…
In a recent issue we learned about the Supreme Court decision, US v. Jones (“Who’s To Blame, Fallout From US V. Jones,” July 2012), in which the court unanimously ruled against warrantless GPS tracking. Originally armed with a warrant for the use of a GPS tracking device, the cops didn’t attach the tracker within the warrant’s requirements — it had expired and they were in another state when they attached the tracker.
What do you suppose they should have done? Perhaps get a new warrant? Absolutely. And it would’ve been fairly easy; make adjustments to the info from the first warrant and ask for a new one. It’s not rocket science. But they didn’t do that. Did they suddenly think, “Nah, we don’t need a warrant,” or were they just being lazy? “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!” Your guess is as good as mine. One thing’s for sure, the mistakes didn’t stop there. Prosecutors tried to justify the merits of everyone’s stupidity — all the way to the Supreme Court!
Many claim the Jones verdict is “bad case law.” I don’t see it that way; it’s just law based on a bad case created by cops’ bad acts. And why do we cry foul every time a ruling comes down against law enforcement? Are we that blind to our screwups?
Technology is the modern day forbidden fruit. Before GPS tracking devices, cell phone locators, surveillance cameras at every corner and remote controlled “spy drones,” we had to monitor and follow people the old fashioned way. If we wanted to know a bad guy’s every move, we had to spend a lot of man-hours doing it — physically. Now, a few mouse-clicks here and, in the case of GPS, a few blips there, and we get a lot more surveilling accomplished. It’s that easy, but easy breeds laziness … and cops can be lazy. We’re all about taking shortcuts.
We need to get control of our laziness before the courts control it for us. The Court doesn’t particularly like having to define boundaries for us either. When they’re put in that position, they have a tendency to hyper-focus on the problem. The Miranda warning is a good example. SCOTUS is to us what we are to crooks that really make themselves the focus of our attention. The Jones ruling — and every other example of bad case law — should act as a loud warning; the Court is screaming, “Don’t make me pull this car over!”
So, how do we get control of ourselves? It’s easier than you think. Having a good moral compass helps, and so does staying in touch with funny feelings. Next time you think your case needs a little assistance from technology, ask yourself: Does what I’m about to do feel right? Is it reasonable? Don’t you just hate how so much of police work comes back to that reasonableness word? Am I jumping to step #5 in my case, bypassing steps #3 and #4? Would I be able to get a warrant for this? If you answer “no” to any of those questions, you probably ought not use whatever the technology is you’re using to take a shortcut.
We’ve all worked around people whose methods of searching, interviewing and interrogating, and general policing — make us nervous. They’ll operate at the very edge of what’s legal, and many times they scurry onto the wrong side. They’ll even joke, “It’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.” And with as fast as high tech is evolving, you can bet someone working on the fringe will say, “Well, there’s no rule saying I can’t do that.” Maybe not at that moment, but do us all a favor and don’t blow it for everyone by being a cowboy.
There’s a saying, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” When it comes to new technology and policing, it’s more appropriate to say, “If you don’t use it wisely, you’ll lose it.” Think about it. We’re supposed to be the good guys; we’re supposed to be smarter than the average crook. It’s not up to us to allow crooks to walk because we didn’t think about the back end of the new Super-Surveillor. It’s not bad case law … it’s law created from bad police work.
By Suzi Huntington