Some would say that technology has made our lives better, and that’s a debate for another day–but one thing we can all agree on is the fact that technology has made it a lot easier for the government to track us. Creepy, invasive technology is no longer the stuff of Mission Impossible and three letter government agencies like the NSA and CIA. To add insult to injury, technologies which invade our privacy have trickled down to local police departments. Which of these snooping technologies constitute a “search”? As you know, anything that constitutes a “search” will require a warrant under the Fourth Amendment. So, think back to your high school American Government class, fourth period (right after lunch, so you were probably very sleepy). The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects us from unreasonable searches. This begs two questions: (1) what is considered “reasonable” and (2) what is a “search?”
Technically speaking, “a search occurs whenever something not previously in plain view becomes exposed to an investigating officer”. Norris v. State, 993 S.W.2d 918, 925 (Ark. 1999). For example, when police were walking through someone’s house, they slightly moved some stereo equipment so that they could read the serial numbers. The United States Supreme Court found that this slight move constituted a “search”. Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321, 324-325 (1987). The only way the police can get away with a search is if they have a search warrant signed by a judge. Otherwise, the police have no right to see “something not previously in plain view”.
Searches are easy to define when it comes to physical places and things. But, what about searches of computers, smartphones, or Wi-Fi networks? Local law enforcement these days are fishing around peer to peer networks in order to make child pornography arrests. May they do this without a search warrant? In order to determine how the Supreme Court will react to these technological developments, we’ll have to review a few old cases.