PPSA asks SCOTUS: Should Government be Allowed to Pressure Businesses to Blacklist Advocacy Organizations?
National Rifle Association v. Vullo
In this age of “corporate social responsibility,” can a government regulator mount a pressure campaign to persuade businesses to blacklist unpopular speakers and organizations? Would such pressure campaigns force banks, cloud storage companies, and other third parties that hold targeted organizations’ data to compromise their clients’ Fourth as well as their First Amendment rights?
These are just some of the questions PPSA is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in National Rifle Association v. Vullo.
Here's the background on this case: Maria Vullo, then-superintendent of the New York Department of Financial Services, used her regulatory clout over banks and insurance companies in New York to strongarm them into denying financial services to the National Rifle Association. This campaign was waged under an earnest-sounding directive to consider the “reputational risk” of doing business with the NRA and firearms manufacturers.
Vullo imposed consent orders on three insurers that they never again provide policies to the NRA. She issued guidance that encouraged financial services firms to “sever ties” with the NRA and to “continue evaluating and managing their risks, including reputational risks” that could arise from their dealings with the NRA or similar gun promotion organizations.
“When a regulator known to slap multi-million fines on companies issues ‘guidance,’ it is not taken as a suggestion,” said Gene Schaerr, PPSA general counsel. “It’s sounds more like, ‘nice store you’ve got here, it’d be shame if anything happened to it.’”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed a lower court’s decision that found that Vullo used threats to force the companies she regulates to cut ties with the NRA. The Second Circuit reasoned that: “The general backlash against gun promotion groups and businesses … could (and likely does) directly affect the New York financial markets; as research shows, a business's response to social issues can directly affect its financial stability in this age of enhanced corporate social responsibility.”
You don’t have to be an enthusiast of the National Rifle Association to see the problems with the Second Circuit’s reasoning. Aren’t executives of New York’s financial services firms better qualified to determine what does and doesn’t “directly affect financial stability” than a regulator in Albany? How aggressive will government become in using its almost unlimited access to buy or subpoena data of a target organization to get its way? We told the Court: “Even the stability of a single company is not enough; the government cannot override the Bill of Rights to slightly reduce the rate of corporate bankruptcies.”
In our brief, PPSA informs the U.S. Supreme Court about the dangers of a nebulous, government-imposed “corporate social responsibility standard.” We write:
“Using CSR – a controversial theory positing that taking popular or ‘socially responsible’ stances may increase corporate profits – to justify infringement of First Amendment rights poses a grave threat to all Constitutionally-protected individual rights.”
PPSA is reminding the Court that the right to free speech and the right to be protected from government surveillance are intwined.
Maxon v. Long Lake Township
If someone sets a tall ladder against your fence, and leans out into your yard to take photographs, would that be a trespass? A court would surely affirm common sense and say that’s a trespass – even if the offender is merely leaning into the space over your property, touching nothing.
What if a nosy neighbor hoisted a Go-Pro on a long camera stick over your fence? Again, that would be a trespass.
But what if you drew a line from the core of the Earth, through your backyard, to a point in outer space 280 miles above the planet? Is all that aerial space above your backyard protected? This is important because the “trespass test” is essential to how courts determine if government surveillance should or should not require a probable cause warrant to inspect a citizen’s property.
Such questions emerge from the comments of an Associate Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court during oral argument last week in Long Lake Township v. Maxon.
This case centers around whether local government should have obtained a probable cause warrant to send a drone to surveil a five-acre estate for the civil offense of collecting prohibited scrap. Is a drone more like the nosy neighbor or more like the camera on an airplane, or – given advances in technology – the sensors of a Google Earth satellite?
The counsel for the township told the court: “Google has a tool where you can even draw, if you want to know whether it’s 50 feet from this house to this barn, or 100 feet from this house to this barn. You do that right on the Google satellite imagery. And so given the reality of the world we live in, how can there be a reasonable expectation of privacy in aerial observations of property?”
The government’s argument seems to be that technology is so advanced that privacy is dead. And if privacy is dead, then should we scrap the Fourth Amendment as a quaint relic of the Eighteenth Century?
Maxon’s counsel held fast to the idea that Google Earth cannot yet perform the kind of invasive, sensory-rich surveillance that a drone can do. He also noted that drones, limited by the FAA to fly under 400 feet, are necessarily low altitude.
One Justice reacted to the assertion that if Google Earth could map a backyard as closely and intimately as a drone, that would be a search. “Technology is rapidly changing,” the Justice responded. “I don’t think it is hard to predict that eventually Google Earth will have that capacity.”
U.S. Supreme Court case law has held that ordinary photographs from fixed wing aircraft flying into publicly navigable airspace, or from helicopters, do not violate the Fourth Amendment and thus do not require a warrant. Not so, however, for more advanced technology. For example, the Baltimore Police Department flew a plane with military technology developed for occupied Baghdad to take pervasive snapshots of Baltimoreans and their movements across 30-square miles. This technology is extraordinarily robust, able to record and track the movement of thousands of individuals and cars across a whole day.
A federal court recognized that such super-sharp, comprehensive imagery necessarily invokes constitutional issues. An ACLU lawsuit against this war-zone surveillance of Americans resulted in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals finding the practice to be unconstitutional.
Last week’s Michigan oral argument will likely be seen as another great step forward in the debate over aerial surveillance. At first, the discussion centered around altitude – as if the 400-foot limit of a drone made its closeness (like the nosy neighbor) the decisive factor. But the exchange points to the conclusion that the truly decisive factor is not altitude, but the level of intrusiveness of a given technology.
How much information can a drone equipped with facial recognition, heat sensing, and other superhuman sensory capabilities glean from an overflight? Enough, we say, to qualify as a trespass requiring a probable cause warrant. In fact, such drones could gather even more information than an individual physically inspecting a property.
Given that the U.S. military and the CIA already use satellite imagery to identify and follow individuals, it is not a stretch to say that Google Earth or something like it will soon have an ability to pierce the privacy of any domicile or anyone who walks outside. But that does not make such an invasion reasonable or destroy legitimate expectations of privacy.
And if such a degree of intrusion into someone’s privacy – whether from a plane equipped with war-zone surveillance technology, or a Google Earth camera with slightly futuristic capabilities – then that, too, would constitute a trespass by Google requiring a probable cause warrant.
The law already distinguishes between the incidental path of a passenger airplane and a deep search, like that of the Baltimore police aircraft. The same principle should apply to intrusive private conduct. A watcher who is at a sufficient altitude above an actual physical presence could still be considered a trespasser of sorts when peering into someone’s backyard at a level of detail impossible for a passenger on an ordinary overflight. That evolving technology allows intrusive invasions over greater distances does not negate any “reasonable expectations of privacy” by citizens – it just illustrates growing violations of those expectations.
The Michigan court seemed to be alert to these dangers. Chief Justice Elizabeth T. Clement referred to the reasoning in PPSA’s amicus brief asking if the Supreme Court reversed itself to ultimately uphold the “exclusionary rule” discounting evidence that violates the Fourth Amendment.
However Maxon is decided, this case will likely be remembered for logically leading to the idea that in aerial surveillance the Fourth Amendment is invoked by the degree of intrusion, not mere altitude.
PPSA Alerts Michigan Supreme Court to “Superhuman” Sensory Abilities of Drones to Pierce Home Privacy
Long Lake Township v. Maxon
In a brief before the Michigan Supreme Court, PPSA alerted the court to the danger of intimate searches of home and residents by relatively inexpensive drones now on the market.
Commercially available drones have thermal cameras that can penetrate beyond what is visible to the naked eye. They can be equipped with animal herd tracking algorithms that can enhance the surveillance of people. Drones can swarm and loiter, providing round-the-clock surveillance. They can carry lightweight, cell-site simulators that prompt the mobile phones of people inside the targeted home to give up data that reveals deeply personal information.
Furthermore, PPSA’s brief states that drones “can see around walls, see in the dark, track people by heat signatures, and recognize and track specific people by their face.”
These are some of the ramifications of a case now before the Michigan Supreme Court. This case began when Long Lake Township in Michigan, suspecting that Todd and Heather Maxon had violated an agreement not to add to a scrap pile of old cars on their five-acre estate, hired a private drone photography business to investigate. No warrant was issued for this surveillance.
Michigan’s top court is now reviewing the ruling by a lower court that found that while warrantless drone surveillance of a residence violated the Fourth Amendment, the evidence should not be excluded from this civil case. PPSA argues that this lack of exclusion of tainted evidence threatens to open a Pandora’s box of pervasive surveillance that could pierce the privacy of virtually anyone inside any structure.
PPSA cites ample precedent for the exclusion of the Maxon evidence. In Carpenter v. United States (2018), the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that the Fourth Amendment applies to digital technologies. In that case, the Court excluded location information derived without a warrant from mobile phones.
In Kyllo v. United States (2001), the Court found that the use of thermal images – which reveals the heat signature emanating from inside a home – requires a warrant.
Compare Kyllo’s comparatively mild surveillance to the “stereo-camera” configuration of many commercially available drones that enable reconstruction of 3D images from 2D cameras. Such surveillance goes well beyond Kyllo, in which police simply used heat radiating from the external surface of the house to detect marijuana cultivation. “Ready-made drone packages, specifically designed for thermal surveillance flights, with the ability to create 3-dimensional maps from their footage, can be had for around $6,000,” PPSA informed the court.
“For less than $10,000, police can obtain a specialized drone with superhuman sensory abilities and better maneuverability than a multi-million-dollar helicopter or plane,” PPSA told the court. Drone’s warrantless extraction of personal information far exceeds the Carpenter warrant requirement.
PPSA’s filing addresses an error by the lower court. The Michigan Court of Appeals recognized that the Township had violated the Fourth Amendment in its use of drones. That court nonetheless found that the exclusionary rule did not apply in Maxon.
PPSA declared: “The Exclusionary Rule is a judicially crafted remedy that gives teeth to the Fourth Amendment by excluding illegally obtained evidence when the privacy value of enforcing Constitutional rights outweighs social harm from excluding evidence.”
PPSA concluded: “If the Fourth Amendment is to have any real meaning in this context, evidence obtained by illegal drone surveillance must be subject to exclusion.”
The Michigan Supreme Court is hearing oral argument on this case this week. PPSA will follow the outcome of this important, precedent-setting case.
The Supreme Court will consider whether to hear the Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability’s petition in Torcivia v. Suffolk County on Nov. 10.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ignored the obvious application of a SCOTUS ruling in Caniglia against the police for entering the home of a New York man to confiscate his guns on the basis of the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment. The Second Circuit affirmed the right to do the same to another man in New York State on a similar, but more malleable “special needs” doctrine – which is essentially any priority the government deems important.
PPSA hopes the Supreme Court grants its petition and takes this opportunity to reinforce the plain meaning of its ruling and the Fourth Amendment.
Is a “special needs exception” to the Fourth Amendment much different from a “community caretaking exception?” PPSA filed a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court demonstrating that it is not.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2021 in Caniglia that the police acted improperly by entering a man’s home and confiscating his guns under the “community caretaking” doctrine – in which the police are making a “welfare check” rather than acting as law enforcement officers. The High Court saw through this precedent from the 1970s and ruled that supposedly “non-investigative” intrusions into a home are what they seem to be – plain violations of the Fourth Amendment.
To the astonishment of many legal observers, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ignored this unanimous Supreme Court opinion in a nearly identical case. In Torcivia v. Suffolk County, the Second Circuit applied a flexible “special needs exception” to the Fourth Amendment. One familiar example of this exception is when authorities decide that some local requirement, such as curbing drunk driving with spot checks, is necessary. But this case did not involve a car on the highway: it involved warrantless entry into a home and the confiscation of a citizen’s lawfully-owned firearms.
The government responded to our petition for the Court to hear Torcivia with the straight-face argument that the community caretaking exception is not the special needs exception. No one claimed it was. But we told the Court that the “logic underlying the special needs exception is indistinguishable from the logic this Court rejected in Caniglia.”
Our brief demonstrates to the Court that absent emergency circumstances or consent, if the “government can overcome the warrant requirement that has traditionally protected the home merely by pointing to an interest that the government feels is sufficiently strong, then the Fourth Amendment no longer serves as a meaningful limit on government power.”
“Respondents cannot escape that the Second Circuit applied the special needs exception to a seizure of firearms located in the home of a person not on probation or parole. That extension cannot be squared with this Court’s precedents or with the text, history, and tradition of the Fourth Amendment.”
New amicus briefs supporting the petition for certiorari filed by PPSA in Torcivia v. Suffolk County urge the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. The Torcivia case asks whether the police can, citing a special need, gain warrantless access to a home. One of the briefs is a clear statement of principle, the other a fascinating history of the ancient, colonial, and early U.S. law upholding the inviolability of the home.
The case involves a New York State man, Wayne Torcivia, who was sent for a psychiatric evaluation after a domestic disturbance call. Torcivia had no history of mental illness, violence, or suicide attempts, but was nevertheless sent to a hospital for a psychological evaluation. When he was cleared to return home by psychiatrists, Torcivia had to negotiate with police to give them warrantless access to his gun safe.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the warrantless entry under a “special needs exception.”
The amicus brief from the New Civil Liberties Alliance neatly summarizes the essence of this case. The NCLA brief notes that the Second Circuit distinguished the “special needs exception” from the similar “community caretaker” warrant exception in Caniglia v. Strom. Late last term, the Supreme Court in a 9-0 decision struck down that justification. NCLA writes:
“As in Caniglia, officers have made home entries and seizures when there was time to obtain the review, and authorization, of a magistrate.”
NCLA noted there was no “exigency” or emergency circumstances. Torcivia was in the hospital and his guns were locked in his safe, posing no immediate danger to himself or to others. NCLA concludes:
“The ‘special needs’ concept is unnecessary and the source of confusion. The rule consistent with the Fourth Amendment’s right of the people to be secure in their homes is straightforward and clear: absent exigency or homeowner consent, the executive may not enter a home and seize property without a warrant—which ensures authorization from a neutral and detached magistrate.”
Another brief, from the Firearms Policy Coalition and FPC Action Foundation, offers a review of the history of the concept of the sanctity of the home, starting with the Roman lawyer and political philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero asked: “What is more sacred, what more inviolably hedged about by every kind of sanctity, than the home of every individual citizen?”
FPC traces the Castle Doctrine to a case in 1499, the first decision to assert that a man’s home is his castle. The brief goes on to trace colonial resistance – sometimes violent – to the intrusions of sheriffs, constables, and British tariff officials. And it documents the intense debate by the framers of the Constitution of the need for a Bill of Rights, including what we now call the Fourth Amendment.
Together, the two briefs combine to make a perfect argument. One upholds the immediate and logical conclusion that the Second Circuit’s decision flies directly in the face of Caniglia, while the other details the philosophical underpinnings of the Fourth Amendment.
In a 6-3 decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court granted U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents who violate the Fourth Amendment and other provisions of the U.S. Constitution almost total immunity from lawsuits. This ruling shrinks the scope of Bivens v. Six Unknown Agents (1971), in which the Court held that a “violation of [the Fourth Amendment] by a federal agent acting under color of his authority gives rise to a cause of action for damages.”
In January, PPSA had filed an amicus brief on behalf of Robert Boule in his quest to obtain justice after being warrantlessly searched and manhandled by Border Patrol Agent Erik Egbert near the Canadian border.
PPSA had noted that since the Magna Carta, the right to sue the Crown for a violation of one’s rights has been a basic principle of English law. Shortly after the American Revolution, U.S. federal courts recognized a common-law right of individuals to sue government officials for damages to remedy violations of foundational law. As English jurist William Blackstone noted, it would be an “absurdity in any system of positive law, to define any possible wrong, without any possible redress.”
Similar logic appears in the sharp, though partial dissent of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. She noted the extent to which Bivens has been narrowed. Justice Sotomayor wrote:
“Respondent Robert Boule alleges that petitioner Erik Egbert, a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent, violated the Fourth Amendment by entering Boule’s property without a warrant and assaulting him. Existing precedent permits Boule to seek compensation for his injuries in federal court …
“The Court goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid this result: It rewrites a legal standard it established just five years ago, stretches national-security concerns beyond recognition, and discerns an alternative remedial structure where none exists. The Court’s innovations, taken together, enable it to close the door to Boule’s claim and, presumably, to others that fall squarely within Bivens’ ambit.”
Justice Sotomayor was clear that she does not believe that today’s ruling overrules Bivens. But, she wrote, “it nevertheless contravenes precedent and will strip many more individuals who suffer injuries at the hands of other federal officers, and whose circumstances are materially indistinguishable from those in Bivens, of an important remedy.”
PPSA will remain alert to other efforts to curtail Americans’ ability to protect their rights by suing law enforcement officers when they violate the law.