Moot Court Active in Charleston

Regional Moot Court Competition in Charleston School of Law

 

I had the privilege of judging some very fine candidates competing in the Moot Court Regional Competition this morning at the Charleston School of Law. The problem identified and argued by the students was recently before the Supreme Court in United States vs. Jones (full opinion found here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-1259.pdf). In this case the Supreme Court had to decide whether the attachment of a GPS device to the undercarriage of the vehicle constituted an unreasonable “search” and “seizure” in violation of the Defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The law students were not at liberty to utilize the Court’s ruling, and, instead, had to rely on precedent to determine whether or not the police activity was unreasonable. In the facts presented to the law students, the police suspected the Defendant of drug trafficking and attached a GPS device to the bottom of the vehicle, which was travelling from New Jersey to North Charleston, SC. When the vehicle entered the state of South Carolina, it was followed and pulled over for a traffic violation. When the officers searched the vehicle they found a substantial amount of heroin in the vehicle.

The issues presented were twofold: 1) Did the attachment of the GPS device to the undercarriage of the vehicle constitute a seizure of that property; and, 2) Was the tracking of said vehicle via GPS an unreasonable search. Supreme Court precedent had held that there is no expectation of privacy in public places. Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967). The two-part test is: 1) Did the Defendant actually have an expectation of privacy; and 2) Is that expectation reasonable.

The students were charged with either defending the position of that the attachment of the GPS was an unreasonable search and seizure, or claiming that it was reasonable. The crux of the argument for the prosecution (Petitioner) was that any police officer could have seen the vehicle on a public thoroughfare; therefore, there could not have been an expectation of privacy. Prior case law had held that there is no expectation of privacy in the vehicle. The defense counsel (Respondent) argued that the mere placement of the GPS device on the vehicle constituted a seizure in that it changed the expectation of how the vehicle could be used. In other words, no reasonable person could expect that there vehicle could be monitored for twenty-seven (27) uninterrupted hours while on a public roadway. The issue that the Respondent relied upon was that the act of placing the GPS on the vehicle itself constituted a trespass, not unlike entering someone’s home without permission.

Each side argued the case on the merits and did an admirable job. The Supreme Court sided unanimously with the Respondent in Jones; however, after listening to oral arguments from both sides this was clearly a tough case. The linchpin was that our Founding Fathers valued our right to privacy and attaching a device to a vehicle without a warrant was an improper invasion of private space, and, therefore, an improper seizure.

I wish the rest of the candidates the best of luck throughout the weekend and clearly there are some very fine candidates.

 

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