Two Ways of Linking “Positive Law” and the Fourth Amendment

In recent years, the Supreme Court has shown increased interest in the connection between the law of property and the Fourth Amendment. In a terrific new article, Will Baude and James Stern have explored that connection to defend “the positive law model of the Fourth Amendment.”

Will and James’s article is very illuminating, but I disagree with their use of the positive law to set a ceiling on what the Fourth Amendment can do. I explain my disagreements in a response piece that proposes an alternative approach, which I call “the positive law floor.”

For those who are interested, here’s the bulk of the abstract for “The Positive Law Model of the Fourth Amendment”:

We argue that Fourth Amendment protection should be anchored in background positive law. The touchstone of the search-and-seizure analysis should be whether government officials have done something forbidden to private parties. It is those actions that should be subjected to Fourth Amendment reasonableness review and the presumptive requirement to obtain a warrant. In short, Fourth Amendment protection should depend on property law, privacy torts, consumer laws, eavesdropping and wiretapping legislation, anti-stalking statutes, and other provisions of law generally applicable to private actors, rather than a freestanding doctrine of privacy fashioned by courts on the fly.

This approach rests on multiple grounds. It is consistent with the history of the Fourth Amendment and with the structure of protection in the closely related area of constitutional property. It draws upon fundamental principles of liberal constitutionalism, namely a concern about abuse of official power. And it is superior to current privacy-based doctrine in many practical ways: it is clearer, more predictable, more accommodating of variation in different times and places, and more sensitive to the institutional strengths of legislative bodies, particularly when it comes to issues presented by new technologies.

And here’s an edited version of the abstract for “The Positive Law Floor”:

The positive law model maintains that a Fourth Amendment search or seizure occurs if, but only if, a private party could not lawfully perform the conduct that the government actually engaged in. The positive law model thus treats laws applicable to private parties as a ceiling on Fourth Amendment protections.

The positive law model has several shortcomings, but the most fundamental is this: government action is different — and often more deserving of regulation — than similar conduct by private parties. Due to its distinctive capabilities, incentives, and social role, the government often threatens the people’s security in ways that private parties simply do not.

Still, we can learn from analogies to private parties without being limited by them. The way to do that, I briefly suggest, is to view privacy-related measures applicable to private parties as presumptively triggering the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches. I call this alternative approach the “positive law floor.”

First posted on Prawfs.

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Filed under Fourth Amendment, Security, Supreme Court

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