Three Questions Raised By The Trespass Test in United States v. Jones

Today’s decision in United States v. Jones holds that the Katz test is not the exclusive test for what is a Fourth Amendment search: When the government conducts a common-law trespass into a person, house, paper, or effects, that trespass is a search if it is done “for the purpose of obtaining information.” Three questions come to mind about what this means:

1) What kind of “trespass” counts for purposes of this test? As Blackstone noted in his Commentaries (Vol. 3. Ch 12), at common law there were two understandings of “trespass” — a broad one and a narrow one. Blackstone wrote:

Trespass, in its largest and most extensive sense, signifies any transgression or offence against the law of nature, of society, or of the country in which we live, whether it relates to a man’s person or his property. Therefore, beating another is a trespass, for which (as we have formerly seen) an action of trespass vi et armis in assault and oattery will lie; taking or detaining a man’s goods are respectively trespasses, for which an action of trespass vi et armis, or on the case in trover and conversion, is given by the law: so also, non-performance of promises or undertakings is a trespass, upon which an action of trespass on the case in assumpsit is grounded: and, in general, any misfeasance or act of one man whereby another is injuriously treated or damnified is a transgression or trespass in its largest sense: for which we have already seen(a) that whenever the act itself is directly and immediately injurious to the person or property of another, and therefore necessarily accompanied with some force, an action of trespass vi et armis will lie; but, if the injury is only consequential, a special action of trespass on the case may be brought.

But, in the limited and confined sense in which we are at present to consider it, it signifies no more than an entry on another man’s ground without a lawful authority, and doing some damage, however inconsiderable, to his real property.

So which conception of trespass does Scalia mean to adopt — the broad one or the narrow one? Scalia says that he has “no doubt” that there was a trespass here, but he doesn’t say why or what kind of trespass he has in mind. Scalia quotes Entick v. Carrington for the idea that setting foot on a neighbor’s “close” and “tread[ing] upon his neighbor’s ground” is a trespass. It seems that Entick was relying on the narrow trespass concept of trespass to land, which, after all, was the cause of action alleged in Entick. That obviously isn’t the case in Jones, though: The agents installed the GPS device when the car was parked in a public parking lot, so there was no trespass to land in the traditional sense.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Alito indicates that he takes the majority to be referring to a trespass to chattels cause of action, but as far as I can tell the majority never establishes this. Moreover, the common law doesn’t seem to provide an answer: The common law of searches and seizures provided a defense to a civil tort action, not an independent cause of action. So it’s hard to know what kind of conduct counts as a “trespass” for purposes of the new Fourth Amendment test.

2) Did Jones unintentionally make the use of undercover agents and informants illegal, at least without a warrant or probable cause? This is a long shot, to be sure, but it’s not a frivolous argument. The common law of trespass included the doctrine of trespass ab initio, by which a person who was permitted to come on to your land could be guilty of trespass if they engaged in some sort of misconduct once there. In the first Fourth Amendment challenge to the use of informants, On Lee v. United States, 343 U.S. 747 (1952), the defendant tried to invoke this doctrine. Lee sold opium from his laundry store and one day made incriminating statements to his friend Poy. It turned out that Poy was an undercover informant wearing a wire, and the recording of Lee’s statements was used against Lee at trial. Lee argued (among other things) that Poy’s misleading him rendered Lee a trespasser ab initio, such that Poy’s entry was a Fourth Amendment search. Justice Jackson rejected the argument:

Petitioner contends, however, that Chin Poy’s subsequent ‘unlawful conduct’ vitiated the consent and rendered his entry a trespass ab initio.

If we were to assume that Chin Poy’s conduct was unlawful and consider this argument as an original proposition, it is doubtful that the niceties of tort law initiated almost two and a half centuries ago by the case of the Six Carpenters, 8 Coke 146(a), cited by petitioner, are of much aid in determining rights under the Fourth Amendment. But petitioner’s argument comes a quarter of a century too late: this contention was decided adversely to him in McGuire v. United States, 273 U.S. 95, 98, 100, 47 S.Ct. 259, 260, 261, 71 L.Ed. 556, where Mr. Justice Stone, speaking for a unanimous Court, said of the doctrine of trespass ab initio: ‘This fiction, obviously invoked in support of a policy of penalizing the unauthorized acts of those who had entered under authority of law, has only been applied as a rule of liability in civil actions against them. Its extension is not favored.’ He concluded that the Court would not resort to ‘a fiction whose origin, history, and purpose do not justify its application where the right of the government to make use of evidence is involved.’ This was followed in Zap v. United States, 328 U.S. 624, 629, 66 S.Ct. 1277, 1279, 90 L.Ed. 1477.

By the same token, the claim that Chin Poy’s entrance was a trespass because consent to his entry was obtained by fraud must be rejected. Whether an entry such as this, without any affirmative misrepresentation, would be a trespass under orthodox tort law is not at all clear. See Prosser on Torts, s 18. But the rational of the McGuire case rejects such fine-spun doctrines for exclusion of evidence.

Does the rationale of McGuire survive Jones? If the test for a Fourth Amendment search is established by common law trespass doctrine, then I’m not sure why the “fiction” of trespass ab initio shouldn’t be restored to the Fourth Amendment despite McGuire. As a practical matter, I doubt the Supreme Court would go this way. But if you take the majority opinion in Jones at face value, it seems like an argument worth making.

3) What happens to Kyllo’s “general public use” exception? I read Jones as relying on Kyllo for the idea that there is more than just the Katz test to determine what is a search. I gather then that the Court is casting Kyllo as an example of a case which was not a Katz “reasonable expectation of privacy” case but rather was a common law trespass case. If that’s right, then does that mean the “general public use” inquiry is no longer applicable? After all, the general public use idea was rooted in Katz cases, not the common law of trespass. If use of a thermal imaging device was a search because it was a common law trespass, then presumably it should stay a search regardless of how common thermal imaging devices may be.