There’s a lot of fear-mongering going on in the world right now. So, I am going to preface this article by telling you not to worry. Don’t get upset. Don’t panic. Maybe, just maaaaaaybe, be a little concerned. Why? Because, earlier this year, Christian Paetsch robbed a Wells Fargo bank in Aurora, Colorado.
This is not a public service announcement about banking safety. It is not even a report on the strange choices of Paetsch, who wore a beekeeping mask as he held the tellers at pistol point, and, until his arrest, was a band leader for a local performing arts group. Fit though he might be for an Elmore Leonard novel, I’ll let someone else tell his story.
This article is actually about the way Paetsch was arrested. Now, he was undoubtedly guilty. He definitely robbed that bank and took $26,000. But, when he took the money, he didn’t notice the GPS tracker buried in the bills. This tracker led Aurora police officers to an intersection at which they believed the suspect’s vehicle would stop. So, they set up a blockade and investigated every car at the intersection.
What do you think of when I say “investigated”? Do you think of a customs-style checkpoint, only one where an extremely specific set of contraband is being searched for? Presumably, these police officers were looking for, oh, you know, a beekeeper’s mask and bag FULL OF $26,000. These are not things I imagine most people might also just coincidentally have with them. Nevertheless, the police “handcuffed all of the men and some women”.
Now, as Paetsch’s trial continues, the issue of his guilt has been settled. Now his lawyer, as well as a lawyer for some of the people detained in the traffic stop, are calling this method of search a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which is
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Oh. I should also note that during the search period, “a 4-year-old girl urinated on herself” and “a mother was forced to crawl through a passenger side door and was then handcuffed in front of her son.” The probable cause that justified this certain violation of unreasonable searches and seizures? Proximity to a GPS tracker, despite lack of identifying traits or features.
Now, why might you be just a little concerned about this? Because the laws that define probable cause haven’t caught up with law enforcement technology, and because every day, a case like this gets closer to the Supreme Court. Very soon, we will be contending with privacy issues like this in our daily behavior. Do you know that your cell phone can be tracked? Of course you do; you love to bitch about Apple Maps. But your cell provider can also see that little blue dot on your screen that represents you, and they can give that information to law enforcement, no warrant needed. Why is this legal? Because you “[do] not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data given off by [a] voluntarily procured…cellphone”. Apparently, you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy while involuntarily driving your vehicle near a suspect in a bank robbery.
We need to pay attention to this, because as technology becomes more accessible, so too will we. What, after all, violates our reasonable expectation of privacy when we are so willing to share every detail of our lives over every possible social media platform? What separates ‘probable cause’ from ‘sort of a feeling’ from ‘unwarranted and unlimited access to cell phone GPS tracking’?
I know you’re all extremely smart and so you may be thinking isn’t it better to have fewer obstacles in the way of justice? Of course we all want criminals to be caught. There’s that thing people say when they defend the Patriot Act – why should it worry you if you have nothing to hide?
I could write a second article on that answer alone, but I’ll be brief here. Because people discriminate against people for more than criminal reasons. There is a reason the fourth amendment exists – because we are not wonderful people, and given the chance, we will use any information against someone else, just to get what we want. It’s easy to ruin a life using past mistakes, and hard to build one back up.
Now, we have to remember that Paetsch is definitely guilty. He was rightfully apprehended. But this shouldn’t excuse what was done in order to apprehend him. It should only serve to remind us that this is a thorny topic, full of if/then/buts, and that it is essential to know exactly what is happening. So, remember:
1. Your location privacy is dependant on who you give your location to. Read your cell phone and email provider’s privacy clauses, don’t just click “agree” after you skimmed them.
2. There is currently no federal law preventing law enforcement agents from obtaining your GPS locations from providers without a warrant.
3. Next week, a bill goes up for vote in the Senate that would allow warrant less access to emails and Google Docs by law enforcement agencies.
Now, I like to end my articles with a ‘what can you do’ proposition. None of us is a lawyer on the Paetsch case (unless you are, and then, hey! Thanks for defending our civil liberties!), so we can’t go straight to the courts to fight these kinds of incursions into our privacy. But we can make ourselves aware of the facts, and we can be aware of what our rights are, should we find ourselves in situations like these. So, I encourage you to head on over to ACLU’s website, look up your state, and know cold what you can expect in terms of your right to privacy. Don’t be afraid to stand up for your rights – if you don’t, who will?