“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.”
So reads the Fourth Amendment to our nation’s constitution. This one sentence stands between our privacy rights and the long arm of government. The framers were wise to keep it simple, as the amendment’s power comes from its brevity, which creates a presumption of a broad right. The catch is that such simple codifications of our most fundamental rights are open to wide interpretations.
This is especially true as technology evolves. With aerial drones, automated cameras, GPS tracking and increasingly sophisticated means of monitoring electronic communications, our privacy faces threats never conceived by our nation’s founders. In the past it was equal protection, and then it was freedom of speech; now, the premier constitutional issue of our time is privacy.
I was proud to be at the front lines of that war of ideas this year in the Maine Legislature, where we considered several bills that have serious Fourth Amendment ramifications.
One bill we passed successfully was LD 236, which puts sensible restrictions on the use of unmanned drones, requiring that law enforcement obtain a warrant when using them for surveillance and prohibiting the installation of weapons or facial recognition technology.
We took up cell phone privacy, passing a bill to require that the government obtain a warrant in order to obtain cell phone GPS location information and another to require that a warrant is required in order to obtain any type of cell phone communication, including text messages.
Another important measure that passed through the committee and the Senate, but failed in the House, was LD 1040, which would have prohibited the placement of cameras and other surveillance equipment on private property without a warrant or the written permission of the property owner. This has become an especially big problem on publicly used trails throughout our state. I plan on revisiting this issue in next year’s session. Just as citizens should be protected against intrusions by the police, we should also have some assurances that our privacy is safe from infringement by other citizens.
A bill that I sponsored, LD 619, requires that when you provide an e-mail address to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office while applying for licenses or renewing a motor vehicle registration, the state may not share that personal contact information. A constituent from Glenburn had brought the issue to my attention when she started receiving unwanted email solicitations for extended warrantees after registering her car. In an age when we all get spammed by companies trying to sell us something or political causes lobbying us incessantly, it is not too much to ask for the government not to participate in such intrusions. This bill passed unanimously through the legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage.
Finally, one of the most noteworthy and publicized bills of the legislative session, LD 345, protected the privacy of concealed handgun permit holders by prohibiting the state from disclosing their personal identifying information. As a cosponsor of this bill and a gun owner myself, I saw the issue as a matter of privacy of the utmost concern. In an ever-growing government, privacy rights are necessary not just as a protection from government intrusion and abuse but from the dissemination of our private information by the government to other people.
Privacy rights are indeed a vast new frontier in lawmaking and jurisprudence. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement agencies may take DNA samples from detained suspects just as they would a fingerprint. The newer the precedent, the more easily it is reversed, and the world of legal thought is easily malleable by public opinion and activism. For example, the idea that Obamacare’s individual mandate is unsupported by the Constitution’s Commerce Clause went from being a “Hail Mary” play to garnering the support of a majority of Supreme Court justices in only a matter of months.
Now is the time for ordinary people to make their voices heard from the State House to the Supreme Court and make a stand for privacy rights. In the digital age, I have been proud to carry the torch in protecting the liberties guaranteed by our founding fathers. As the saying often attributed to Thomas Jefferson goes, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, serves on the Maine Legislature’s judiciary committee and represents Glenburn, Kenduskeag, Levant and part of Corinth.