The Fourth Amendment guarantees the people’s right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Originally conceived as a property-based protection against arbitrary invasions by officials during the colonial era, the Fourth Amendment has since been interpreted to guarantee a reasonable expectation of privacy in other areas, too. In fact, since the 1960s, courts interpreted the Fourth Amendment with a keen awareness of advancing technology. Courts have done so in order to navigate the scope of the Amendment’s protections as the government’s prying eye and uninvited ear threatened the sanctity of protected areas from afar, especially the home. Even after determining whether something was a search, a more formidable, subjective question remains: is the search unreasonable? The line separating what is reasonable from what is unreasonable is blurred, at best.
This blurring was evident in Naperville Smart Meter Awareness v. City of Naperville. The City of Naperville received a grant from the Federal Government to upgrade its electrical grid and used a portion of that grant—with no input from its citizens whatsoever—to install “smart meters.” Smart meters are digital electric meters that record usage in set intervals; in the City of Naperville’s case, every fifteen minutes. The Seventh Circuit held that while the smart meter data recording was undeniably a search, it was reasonable in consideration of local and Federal Government interests and consumer-related benefits, such as reduced labor costs. The most noteworthy part of the opinion is the Seventh Circuit’s note immediately preceding the conclusion. The court qualified its holding as particular to the circumstances of this case, cautioning that even something such as a shorter interval collection could change the outcome. The note echoed the arbitrariness of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Carpenter v. United States, where the Court drew the constitutional line of reasonability at a six-day period of cell-site location information.
This Comment argues that the Seventh Circuit’s determination that fifteen-minute data collection intervals are reasonable, while noting that a shorter interval might not be, is precarious in consideration of Fourth Amendment precedent and fails to apply strict scrutiny analysis where a fundamental liberty is concerned. It reflects the same ill-defined line drawn in Carpenter, thus indicating a more systemic problem. After all, longstanding precedent establishes that neither the quality nor quantity of information obtained matters; all details within a home are intimate for the purposes of Fourth Amendment analysis. Any attempts to identify categories of information that are inherently reasonable or unreasonable, or drawing a line at fifteen minutes instead of fourteen minutes, inserts subjectivity into an area where Fourth Amendment protections of a home were intended to remain absolute. Smart meter technology will become more prevalent across the country in the next couple of years. Any treatment of the smart meter technology at this point—where the Seventh Circuit is the first to issue an opinion regarding the meters—is critical, and should be prospective as to the direction this technology is headed in, and not necessarily where it has been or currently stands.
Ashley L. Surinak,
Grin and “Bare” It: The Seventh Circuit’s Stamp of Approval on Unreasonable Fourth Amendment Violations,
Seventh Circuit Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.kentlaw.iit.edu/seventhcircuitreview/vol14/iss1/5