On the evening of October 4, 1957, one event would change the world forever. With the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, the whole of civilization was ushered into a new period of technology and discovery. No one who witnessed the birth of the satellite age almost 60 years ago could have envisioned the indispensable impact satellite technology would have in the modern era. One of the most significant benefits of satellite technology has been the use of multiple satellites to determine precise location information from anywhere on the planet. This use, commonly known as GPS (global positioning system), has become so commonplace in our world that a considerable portion of the world population uses it daily. In addition, states capitalized on the use of GPS technology in the mandatory monitoring of sex offenders through the creation of satellite-based monitoring (SBM) programs aimed at the protection of the public by curbing recidivism of known sex offenders. Many legal challenges followed. Then, in the 2012 United States Supreme Court case of United States v. Jones, satellites would again change the world.
The Supreme Court, through its Jones decision, would usher in a new paradigm of search law when it held that the warrantless installation and GPS monitoring of a suspect's vehicle constituted a search. The question remained open, however, regarding the effect the Jones decision would have on the GPS monitoring of sex offenders. In the 2015 Supreme Court term, the Court answered this question. In Grady v. North Carolina, the Court ruled that SBM programs constituted a Fourth Amendment search. Despite its ruling, the Court left open the "ultimate question" of whether SBM programs are reasonable warrantless searches. This Article will utilize the framework left by the Grady decision and attempt to answer the "ultimate question" for North Carolina: is the lifetime SBM program reasonable under the Fourth Amendment? The Article will conclude that a court will likely hold that North Carolina's SBM program is a reasonable search. When considering this result, four crucial observations appear:
(1) In assessing reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court has struggled to consistently maintain a clear direction. Over time, the Court has grappled with whether to require a warrant or to inquire into reasonableness alone. As a result of this dilemma, a number of cases have sprung up to create classifications of warrantless searches that defy a common and consistent theme.
(2) The Grady decision's cited cases Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton and Samson v. California provide at least two distinct reasonableness scaffolds to build upon: (1) a "special needs" exception, requiring some need beyond traditional law enforcement; and (2) a general reasonableness exception based upon a particular context, such as a diminished expectation of privacy.
(3) While it is likely that the North Carolina courts will conclude that the SBM program is reasonable, such a decision will constitute a Pyrrhic victory, won at the considerable cost to individual privacy. Veritably, if the court upholds lifetime GPS monitoring of individuals as reasonable, such a ruling pushes the outside of the envelope for suspicionless and warrantless searches.
(4) Should the High Court eventually consider the "ultimate question" left open in its Grady decision, the resolution is in doubt. In fact, the whole aggregate of its pronouncements on reasonableness, both past and future, has been shrouded in ambiguity. Currently, the Court is ensnared in darkness over the future of its ideological understanding of the Fourth Amendment. Justice Scalia's recent death casts a long shadow over the evenly divided Court. Only time will tell if the Court will attempt to view reasonableness through a preference for warrants or if it chooses to continue to track reasonableness alone in the universe of uncertainty and unpredictability that is the Fourth Amendment. For now, all we can do is look to the heavens and wonder.
J. Bryan Boyd, Tracking Reasonableness: An Evaluation of North Carolina's Lifetime Satelite-Based Monotoring Statutes in the Wake of Grady v. North Carolina, 38 Campbell L. Rev. 151 (2016).