In an FOIA case, the ACLU sued for disclosure of cases involving cell phone tracking data because it was practically impossible to gather the information without it. The D.C. Circuit held the information was subject to disclosure because the privacy interest in the information was low. ACLU v. DOJ, 10-5159 (D.C. Cir. September 6, 2011):
On the other side of the balance, we find a significant public interest in disclosure, something altogether absent in Reporters Committee. Because the disclosure of private citizens’ criminal histories “reveals little or nothing about [the] agency’s own conduct,” and because that was all that was at issue in Reporters Committee, the “public interest in disclosure [was] at its nadir” in that case. Reporters Comm., 489 U.S. at 773, 780. By contrast, as we discuss below, the disclosure of prosecutions in which the defendants were subject to warrantless cell phone tracking, and then were convicted or pled guilty, would shed light on government conduct. Accordingly, it falls within FOIA’s scope because it advances “the citizens’ right to be informed about what their government is up to.” Reporters Comm., 489 U.S. at 773 (internal quotation marks omitted).
1. The use of and justification for warrantless cell phone tracking is a topic of considerable public interest: it has received widespread media attention18 and has been a focus of inquiry in several congressional hearings considering, among other things, whether the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99-508, 100 Stat. 1848 (1986), should be revised either to limit or to facilitate the practice. Courts are divided as to whether the government must show probable cause before it can obtain cell phone location data, as well as on related questions regarding warrantless GPS surveillance.
The Supreme Court has recently granted certiorari to address the GPS issue. See United States v. Jones, 2011 WL 1456728 (June 27, 2011), granting cert. to Maynard, 615 F.3d 544. The disclosure sought by the plaintiffs would inform this ongoing public policy discussion by shedding light on the scope and effectiveness of cell phone tracking as a law enforcement tool. It would, for example, provide information about the kinds of crimes the government uses cell phone tracking data to investigate. As the plaintiffs note, with respect to wiretapping Congress has balanced privacy interests with law enforcement needs by permitting the government to use that technique for only the more serious offenses, see 18 U.S.C. § 2516, and the plaintiffs (and others) may decide to argue for similar legislation to govern cell phone tracking. Disclosure would also provide information regarding how often prosecutions against people who have been tracked are successful, thus shedding some light on the efficacy of the technique and whether pursuing it is worthwhile in light of the privacy implications. Information from suppression hearings in these cases could provide further insight regarding the efficacy of the technique by revealing whether courts suppress its fruits, and would disclose the standard or standards the government uses to justify warrantless tracking. Information from suppression hearings would also provide facts regarding the duration of tracking and the quality of tracking data, facts that would inform the public discussion concerning the intrusiveness of this investigative tool.
. . .
Nor are we persuaded by the government’s contention that the interest in informing the public discussion is deficient because the plaintiffs have insufficient evidence that disclosure will show government wrongdoing. Whether the government’s tracking policy is legal or illegal, proper or improper, is irrelevant to this case. It is true that, where “the public interest being asserted is to show that responsible officials acted negligently or otherwise improperly in the performance of their duties, the requester must establish more than a bare suspicion in order to obtain disclosure.” Favish, 541 U.S. at 174. But the plaintiffs are not (or at least not only) seeking to show that the government’s tracking policy is legally improper,22 but rather to show what that policy is and how effective or intrusive it is. “[M]atters of substantive law enforcement policy ... are properly the subject of public concern,” whether or not the policy in question is lawful. Reporters Comm., 489 U.S. at 766 n.18.
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"If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. It isn't, and they don't."
"Love work; hate mastery over others; and avoid intimacy with the government."
—Shemaya, in the Thalmud
"A system of law that not only makes certain conduct criminal, but also lays
down rules for the conduct of the authorities, often becomes complex in its
application to individual cases, and will from time to time produce imperfect
results, especially if one's attention is confined to the particular case at
bar. Some criminals do go free because of the necessity of keeping
government and its servants in their place. That is one of the costs of having
and enforcing a Bill of Rights. This country is built on the assumption that
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safer if the Constitution is strictly enforced."
—Williams v. Nix, 700 F. 2d 1164, 1173 (8th Cir. 1983) (Richard Sheppard Arnold, J.), rev'd Nix v. Williams, 467 US. 431 (1984).
"The criminal goes free, if he must, but it is the law that sets him free. Nothing
can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws,
or worse, its disregard of the charter of its own existence."
—Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 659 (1961).
Any costs the exclusionary rule are costs imposed directly by the Fourth Amendment.
—Yale Kamisar, 86 Mich.L.Rev. 1, 36 n. 151 (1987).
"There have been powerful hydraulic pressures throughout our history that
bear heavily on the Court to water down constitutional guarantees and give the
police the upper hand. That hydraulic pressure has probably never been greater
than it is today."
— Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 39 (1968) (Douglas, J., dissenting).
"The great end, for which men entered into society, was to secure their
—Entick v. Carrington, 19 How.St.Tr. 1029, 1066, 95 Eng. Rep. 807 (C.P. 1765)
"It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have
frequently been forged in controversies involving not very nice people. And
so, while we are concerned here with a shabby defrauder, we must deal with his
case in the context of what are really the great themes expressed by the Fourth
—United States v. Rabinowitz, 339 U.S. 56, 69 (1950) (Frankfurter, J., dissenting)
"The course of true law pertaining to searches and seizures, as enunciated
here, has not–to put it mildly–run smooth."
—Chapman v. United States, 365 U.S. 610, 618 (1961) (Frankfurter, J., concurring).
"A search is a search, even if it happens to disclose nothing but the
bottom of a turntable."
—Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321, 325 (1987)
"For the Fourth Amendment protects people, not places. What a person knowingly
exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth
Amendment protection. ... But what he seeks to preserve as private, even in
an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected."
—Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 351 (1967)
“Experience should teach us to be most on guard to
protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born
to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded
rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men
of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”
—United States v. Olmstead, 277 U.S. 438, 479 (1925) (Brandeis, J., dissenting)
“Liberty—the freedom from unwarranted
intrusion by government—is as easily lost through insistent nibbles by
government officials who seek to do their jobs too well as by those whose purpose
it is to oppress; the piranha can be as deadly as the shark.”
—United States v. $124,570, 873 F.2d 1240, 1246 (9th Cir. 1989)
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“You know, most men would get discouraged by
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—Pepé Le Pew
"There is never enough time, unless you are serving it."
"The point of the Fourth Amendment, which often is not grasped by zealous officers, is not that it denies law enforcement the support of the usual inferences which reasonable men draw from evidence. Its protection consists in requiring that those inferences be drawn by a neutral and detached magistrate instead of being judged by the officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime."
—Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 13-14 (1948)