The DHS is back in court, arguing for its “right” to expand border searches to cover the entire country. The case in which Homeland Security investigators are making this dubious claim involves the placement of a GPS device on a truck crossing the Canadian border… which FBI agents then tracked all the way down into California.
The “bust” carried out in Southern California turned up plenty of legal frozen pastries and four bags of a cocaine-like substances known as regular-ass sugar. The FBI posited this was a trial run for actual drugs and chose to take its collected evidence to court, where it was promptly thrown out by the presiding judge. As the judge saw it, tracking a vehicle inland requires a warrant. The “border exception” to warrant requirements can’t be expanded to cover searches performed miles from the 100-mile “Constitution-free zone.”
The government maintains the judge’s opinion is wrong, according to this report by Cyrus Farivar of Ars Technica.
A top Homeland Security Investigations official has told a federal court that it remains the agency’s policy that officers can install a GPS tracking device on cars entering the United States “without a warrant or individualized suspicion” for up to 48 hours.
There is no such time limit, HSI Assistant Director Matthew C. Allen also told the court, for putting such trackers on “airplane, commercial vehicles, and semi-tractor trailers, which has a significantly reduced expectation of privacy in the location of their vehicles.”
The argument, laid out very briefly in the government’s filing [PDF], is basically that DHS policy says this sort of thing is OK, so there’s no need to worry about Constitutional protections or precedential Supreme Court decisions.
HSI exercises its border-search authority for the purpose of protecting national security and revenue of the United States. Pursuant to this authority, it is policy that a customs officer may install a GPS tracking device on a vehicle at the United States border without a warrant or individualized suspicion. HSI limits warrantless GPS monitoring to 48 hours, with the exception of airplanes, commercial vehicles, and semi-tractor trailers, which have a significantly reduced expectation of privacy in the location of their vehicles. It is HSI’s position that such policy is consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012), and United States v. Flores-Montana, 541 U.S. 149 (2004).
It may be HSI’s position but it’s not the judge’s position, nor is it a Constitutionally-sound position. The judge has already determined this inland tracking required a warrant, so simply restating DHS policy isn’t going to reverse this decision. The government will probably get a chance to expound on this argument at a later date, but for now, all it’s offering is a conclusory reiteration of internal policy. That’s not even close to the same thing as an argument supported by caselaw and precedential decisions.
But for the rest of us, the DHS is at least clarifying its stance on the border warrant exception: it can track you anywhere you travel in the country, so long as a) it’s within 48 hours of the warrantless placement of the tracking device, or b) the vehicle involved has any commercial purpose. The argument it barely makes still doesn’t address the fact there’s no current exception for warrantless deployment of GPS tracking devices.
The “border exception” the government claims exists actually doesn’t. The law says nothing about border freebies and vehicles crossing the border are, more likely than not, going to travel outside of the area where the border exception is applicable. This is basically the DHS claiming because it can search your vehicle without a warrant at a border crossing, it can search it anywhere else in the US provided your vehicle crossed the US border at some point in the recent past. If the government can somehow convince the court its border protection mandates allow for inland searches, the Fourth Amendment will be null and void.