Geofence “Warrants”: An Unconstitutional Abuse of Technology

General warrants give law enforcement agents broad authority “to search and seize unspecified places or persons.” Prior to the American Revolution, this type of search—known as a writ of assistance—was widely used by British officials to search colonists’ imported goods to ensure compliance with the tax code. James Otis, a young lawyer from Boston, gave an impassioned defense of civil liberties and struck a chord with colonists. In an 1817 letter to William Tudor, John Adams referred to Otis’s speech as the birth of America’s struggle for independence.

Today, the Fourth Amendment protects Americans from the unreasonable searches and seizures of a time gone by. However, technological advances have brought general warrants into the modern era in the form of geofence warrants.

Geofence warrants are reverse searches used by law enforcement to identify suspects in criminal investigations. These searches take advantage of modern technology by identifying all users present within a virtually bounded geographic area. Just like the broad writs of assistance from the colonial era, these warrants give law enforcement the broad authority to search unspecified persons before they are implicated in the crime being investigated.

In a new policy memo published by Libertas Institute, we explain how these broad searches have increased exponentially in recent years, yet because the judiciary is not prepared to address their problems in a timely fashion, a legislative reform is needed to adequately and appropriately protect the privacy of Utahns. 

Read the Memo