“Maximize Outputs” and “Minimize Costs” of the Fourth Amendment

December 31st, 2012

Ric Simmons has an interesting piece forthcoming in the Harvard JLPP that considers the costs of the Fourth Amendment, titled Ending the Zero-Sum Game: How to Increase the Productivity of the Fourth Amendment.

Here is the abstract:

Every criminal procedure student learns on the first day of class that Fourth Amendment policy represents a zero-sum game: a constant struggle between the individual privacy of citizens and the needs of law enforcement. In reality, however, the “competition” between law enforcement and criminals does not have to be zero-sum. In order to see why, we need to see the criminal justice system not as a competition, but instead as an industry. This article applies economic principles to try to find ways to increase the efficiency of the criminal justice system — that is, to maximize output while minimizing costs. The costs to the system are both the intangible loss of privacy that is associated with surveillance, as well as the tangible, actual monetary cost incurred by law enforcement organizations to undertake the surveillance. The output that we are seeking is crime control, or more specifically in the Fourth Amendment context, the identification of those who are guilty of a crime and collection of evidence which can be used to demonstrate their guilt. Roughly speaking, the more money we spend, and/or the more willing we are to infringe on our own freedoms, the more output we receive in terms of identifying the guilty and recovering incriminating evidence.

However, there are two ways that this industry could in fact be a positive-sum game. First, advances in technologies can increase the effectiveness of surveillance in catching criminals without reducing the privacy rights of ordinary citizens — that is, it is possible to increase the output without increasing the cost. And second, changing norms and attitudes may decrease the value of certain kinds of privacy to individuals, causing the cost of certain types of surveillance to decrease. This can work in the other direction as well: when criminals, rather than police, take advantage of technological advances, the output of the system will decrease even if costs are held constant. Likewise, societal norms could change to make certain types of privacy more valuable, thus increasing the cost to the system. In these situations, the criminal justice system becomes a negative sum game. Once we have identified the productivity of different forms of surveillance, we can take steps to encourage more productive types of surveillance and discourage the less productive ones.

The Article first sketches out a basic formula for analyzing the productivity of different surveillance methods by measuring the cost of the inputs and the benefits of the outputs. It then applies this formula to different methods of surveillance to see how certain methods of surveillance are more productive than others, searches for ways to increase the productivity of surveillance generally. Finally, the Article offers some suggestions for changing the way we regulate surveillance techniques in order to maximize the efficiency of the process.

In The Constitutionality of Social Cost, also published the Harvard JLPP, I consider the social costs of many of our constitutional rights, including the Fourth Amendment. From the abstract:

Although the Second Amendment has been singled out from its brethren in the Bill of Rights as the most dangerous right, it is not the only dangerous right. The Supreme Court has developed over a century of jurisprudence to deal with forms of liberty that yield negative externalities. The right to speak freely is balanced with the possible harm that can result from people preaching hate, violence, intolerance, and even fomenting revolution. The freedom of the press permits the media to report on matters that may harm national security. The freedom of association allows people to congregate to advocate for certain types of violence . The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures enables the possession of the fruits and instrumentalities of crime with impunity. Inculpatory evidence seized in violation of this right is generally inadmissible during trial, permitting crimes to go unpunished. Likewise, a violation of a person’s Miranda rights renders certain confessions — even an uncoerced inculpatory confession — inadmissible.

Procedural rights during the criminal trial — including the right to grand jury indictment, the right against self-incrimination, the right against double jeopardy, the right of compulsory process, the right of confrontation, the right of a speedy and public trial, and the right of trial by jury — all make the prosecution of culpable defendants significantly harder. The Due Process Clause, which imposes limitations on all government actions, places the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt on the prosecution. The right to non-excessive bail and reasonable fines make it easier for suspects to avoid prison during prosecutions and may allow them to abscond before trial. The right against cruel and unusual punishments removes certain forms of retribution from the quiver of the state, thereby limiting the range of punishments for those found guilty of a crime. The right of habeas corpus ensures that a person — however dangerous — cannot be indefinitely without proper procedures. Liberty’s harm to society takes many forms — not just from the exercise of the right to keep and bear arms.

These precedents show how the Court balances freedom and the harm that may result from its exercise. Although a “primary concern of every government [is] a concern for the safety and indeed the lives of its citizens,” this concern is not constitutionally sacrosanct.