Civil Libertarians Vow to Reform Section 702
The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear Wikimedia v. NSA, a lawsuit challenging the mass, secret surveillance of Americans’ online communications.
The ACLU had gone to court to challenge a National Security Agency program under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which the agency uses to continuously monitor international and domestic communications across the internet’s main pathways.
“In analog terms, it’s as if government agents were opening the international letters passing through a U.S. post office en masse, reading the contents, and then keeping many of those letters in a file for years,” wrote Bob Goodlatte, PPSA Senior Policy Advisor and former Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in a recent op-ed.
Goodlatte compared this intrusion by the government into American’s emails, web-browsing content, and search engine queries to the “general warrants” of the colonial era that had helped spark the American Revolution.
“Worse, the government asserts that this case cannot even be litigated,” said Gene Schaerr, PPSA general counsel. “Under the government’s interpretation of the ‘state secrets’ doctrine, major surveillance programs of the government can never be litigated.
“This denial shows all the more reason why Congress needs to step in and use the pending reauthorization of Section 702 – a principal surveillance authority in FISA – to close loopholes the government is exploiting.”
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.”