One hundred police departments use the ShotSpotter sensor system to triangulate the location of gunfire and send patrol cars to the scene. In a case of first impression out of Illinois, the 7th Circuit held that the use of ShotSpotter can be permissible under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. [United States v. Terrill A. Rickmon, Sr. (7th Circuit - March 11, 2020)]
The court started its analysis by referring to well-established Terry stops which have long been held constitutional if based on “reasonable suspicion”. The “reasonable suspicion” test, which is less stringent than the probable cause needed to support a warrant, is met when articulable facts suggest criminal activity, based on the totality of circumstances known to the officer at the time of the stop.
In the Illinois case, ShotSpotter alerted a system representative in California, a live person who determined the sound to be gunshots. The information was relayed back through the system to a patrol officer who stopped a car leaving the area where the gunfire was heard. With the driver’s consent, the officer searched the vehicle and found a gun underneath the passenger seat where the defendant was sitting. The defendant had a criminal history and was convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon.
The court wrote that the ShotSpotter alert was not enough by itself to justify stopping a vehicle, but went on to find the stop was reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances. The court analogized the ShotSpotter alert to an anonymous tip, which must be corroborated to pass constitutional muster. The corroboration in this case consisted of independent reports of cars and an individual on foot leaving the scene. Another circumstance was the dangerousness of the crime - here, gunfire, making this an emergency situation. Also, it was 4:45 a.m. and the officer found no other traffic on the street. This was the only car the officer saw coming from the scene. Finally, this officer had previously been called to several shootings in the same area of the city. Add it all up and the totality of the circumstances suggests the people in this vehicle were involved in criminal activity.
There was a dissent that found all of this rather thin. The officer had no information about this particular car and admitted he would have stopped any car leaving the scene. Thus, in the dissent’s view, there was no individualized reason to support the stop. “If the Fourth Amendment stands for anything, it stands for the proposition that the police cannot seize anyone without adequate, individualized reason to do so,” the dissent wrote.
Factual circumstances aside, the point for tonight’s purposes is that the Fourth Amendment has been applied to another new technology and the use of that technology has been upheld by a federal appeals court. A marker has been laid down and future cases will probably turn on fine shadings of fact. It would be an uphill climb at this point to get ShotSpotter disqualified as unconstitutional in all cases.