Kyllo: Do guilty people have too many rights? – by “Sabrina A”

In class we talk a lot about safeguarding rights and protecting individuals from the government, but sometimes, these rights go too far. As (generally) liberal college students, it’s easy to talk about principles, but at some point, the pragmatic applications of these principles have to kick in, and if some rights just protect the guilty instead of the innocent, perhaps they shouldn’t be rights at all. Specifically in the case of search and seizure, we want to make sure that the government cannot unnecessarily invade people’s lives. Well, honestly, in reality, it’s probably okay if the government is invading your life, if in the major case, it’s protecting the community’s right to safety. I know it’s very PATRIOT Act, but I don’t think this issue has to polarize down party lines.

Also, we act like we want to make sure that no innocent individual is screwed over in the quest to catch the guilty. I’m not sure that our justice system really works that way, though. We do value efficiency and practicality, even if accuracy in outcomes decreases. For example, we have plea bargains, and we all know that some innocent people do plead guilty. I think we’re OK with this because in most cases, the outcome is correct, and plea bargains serve justice by freeing up the system to prosecute the most important cases. If we didn’t have plea bargains, there would simply be too many cases, and pragmatically, the system would not function.

Basically, I think practicality and efficiency matter more than people give them credit for, and for those reasons, I think the decision in Kyllo v. US was incorrect. In Kyllo, the Supreme Court ruled that the use of a thermal imaging device placed at a public vantage point, used to catch a man who was growing a lot of marijuana in his home, was unconstitutional. There are several reasons why this seems like a bad decision.

First, the search method is narrowly tailored. The thermal imaging device didn’t pick up lots of scandalous details about the man’s life or anything that an innocent person would want to hide. It simply detected enormous amounts of heat. There really aren’t many uses of large amounts of heat that aren’t suspicious. It sounds like the type of device used was advanced enough that it wouldn’t catch cases like the man taking a hot bath – it was specific to uses of so much heat that a policeman should rightfully be suspicious. And the Court ruled that the use of the device itself wasn’t OK, so the Court didn’t just have a problem with the lack of warrant, it seems. It was the use of the device to identify the pot farm, the initial step – even if the police should have gotten a warrant before intervening, the device should have still been permissible.

And more importantly, we can envision a circumstance where technology advances so much that a device could practically be a litmus test of guilt or innocence with minimal physical intrusions: i.e., a device that could detect only whether large amounts of marijuana was being grown in a house. The Court has seemed to uphold that even in these types of cases, people deserve protections; however, if we had a magical machine that would only catch the guilty, we’d probably be OK with it, since it doesn’t take any secrets from the innocent.

Using this device doesn’t hurt innocent people – it doesn’t take secrets from them and doesn’t impose on them. It also doesn’t create a culture of fear and suspicion, which was what the 4th amendment was supposed to avoid. This is an unobtrusive device with a specific use. And we force people to go through metal detectors (we force kids to go to school and juror/witness/defendants to go to court, and we often put metal detectors in those places) without thinking twice. Metal detectors are external technology that catches the guilty without harming innocents. No warrant needed.

Also, the heat was leaked outside of the home. Cases that are analogous in my mind: 1. A cop happens to be walking by a house and smells opium. He should be allowed to intervene. 2. A cop is walking by a home and hears a gunshot, or the sound of someone being assaulted. He should be allowed to intervene. In this case, the cops used technology to enhance their sensory capacities. But why should cops have to hinder themselves? Should we not use technology because the Constitution leaves scientific evolution as a gray area in terms of rights protections? Ultimately, the Constitution is only a broad set of principles, and our understanding of it should evolve with technological progress. Also, Kyllo should have had a reasonable expectation of that type of technology: it doesn’t take much to detect that much heat. I know it’s hard to draw a line ascertaining what type of technology people should “expect,” but I think someone growing a pot farm in his house could expect the heat to be detectable in some way.

I guess one could say that we have to be careful because the police might use this technology against an innocent person. Well…so what? I don’t care if the police measure the heat radiating from my home. We can say that innocent people deserve protections, but this manifestation of the 4th amendment does not help innocents. And the police have no incentive to misuse or overuse the technology – they’re rewarded for catching guilty people, so they have the incentive to go after the people who have actually done something wrong.

Ultimately, it’s cases like Kyllo that make it seem like the guilty have too many protections in our society. Our system is about fairness, but it’s also about catching guilty people, and we have to look at pragmatic outcomes, not just principles, to maintain a balance of rights that best advances our conception of fairness.

One thought on “Kyllo: Do guilty people have too many rights? – by “Sabrina A”

  1. This was very interesting and well thought out, I’m not sure I agree with this. Although it is true that the thermal measuring device used in Kyllo v. United States couldn’t pick up images, I’m not sure how courts could distinguish between narrowly tailored devices like those used to search Mr. Kyllo’s home and other thermal imaging devices. If the government is allowed to measure heat coming from someone’s home, why can’t they use a thermal imaging device that picks up more intimate details–like what a person is doing in the privacy of their home? If all you look at to determine whether a search is fair is that the heat is being leaked out, that sets a dangerous precedent.

    Also, there probably are some scenarios where people want to keep the heat in their house private. Maybe a scientist wants to keep it secret that he is doing some type of research at his house. Maybe a politician doesn’t want people to know that he’s not using CFC light bulbs. Maybe someone has a tanning booth in their home and doesn’t want people to know that their tan is fake. Maybe you’ve started installing lights to grow plants to start a florist shop but don’t want the competition to find out. These might seem like rather unlikely scenarios, but I’m sure there are plenty of people that would mind it if someone searched their house for heat.

    I’m terrified of the idea that the courts should try to be “pragmatic” when deciding what individual liberties are ok to surrender in the name of finding the guilty. Our civil liberties are absolute and shouldn’t be examined on a case-by-case basis. Saying that surrendering some freedom is ok because I have nothing to hide sets a dangerous precedent. There are a lot of instances in which the government could claim that surrendering individuals’ rights is in the best interest of the community’s safety, but this leads to bad outcomes, especially during wartime.


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