Back in 2010, Redditor Yasir Afifi found an unusual device on his car while taking it in for an oil change.
Other Redditors surmised it was some sort of tracking device -- something that was confirmed a few days later when two SUVs full of cops and FBI agents showed up to reclaim it. While doing so, the FBI agent also asked the sort of probing questions that make the agency an indispensable part of our nation's counterterrorism efforts. From the ruling
by Judge Beryl Howell
The agents also asked the plaintiff other questions, including “whether he was a national security threat, whether he was having financial difficulties, [and] whether he had been to Yemen . . . .”
They also said other, more unsettling things:
After returning the GPS device, defendant Kanaan made several comments to the plaintiff that indicated to the plaintiff that the FBI had knowledge of the plaintiff’s movements, including commenting on certain restaurants at which the plaintiff ate, a friend with whom he associated, and a new job at which he worked. Id. at ¶ 46. At the end of the encounter, the plaintiff alleges that defendant Kanaan suggested to him that he was not a national security threat and that he was no longer of use to the FBI.
Apparently, part of the justification for deploying this tracking device was a comment one of Afifi's friends
had left at Reddit -- a comment that skewers a lot of unproductive terrorism hysteria (and the agencies that thrive in this atmosphere).
bombing a mall seems so easy to do. i mean all you really need is a bomb, a regular outfit so you arent the crazy guy in a trench coat trying to blow up a mall and a shopping bag. i mean if terrorism were actually a legitimate threat, think about how many fucking malls would have blown up already.. you can put a bag in a million different places, there would be no way to foresee the next target, and really no way to prevent it unless CTU gets some intel at the last minute in which case every city but LA is fucked...so...yea...now i'm surely bugged : /
End result? A tracking device on Afifi's car, and for something he didn't even write. So, he sued the FBI and the DOJ for violating his First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. The suit was stayed by the court while the Supreme Court sorted out US v. Jones
-- a case dealing with warrantless GPS tracking. Unfortunately, the Court returned not much
in the way of a decision, stating that GPS tracking did constitute a "search," but didn't go so far as to add a warrant requirement, suggesting the longer the tracking lasts, the worse it is constitutionally.
Whether or not this was warrantless surveillance isn't answered in Howell's decision. None of Afifi's claims survive. Qualified immunity nullifies Afifi's First and Fourth Amendment Bivens
claims with an assist from the circuit courts' split on warrantless GPS tracking. As the events in question took place nearly two years ahead of the Supreme Court's decision, Howell defers to the rulings in place at that time (2010) as governing the agents' actions.
[T]he warrantless use of a GPS device was lawful under Ninth Circuit precedent at the time of its use in the present case. In other words, the individual defendants’ warrantless use of the GPS device was valid in California, the jurisdiction in which the individual defendants used the GPS device.
Afifi's First Amendment claim also goes down, seeing as there's no judicial precedent for chilling speech with a GPS tracker.
The plaintiff has failed to cite a single case from any Circuit holding that the warrantless use of a GPS device violates an individual’s First Amendment rights. To be sure, the qualified immunity analysis does not require a “case directly on point,” Al-Kidd, 131 S.Ct. at 2083, but a court must take caution in properly defining the scope of the right violated (“We have repeatedly told courts . . . not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality.”). [...] The plaintiff’s inability to cite a single case in support of his contention that the warrantless use of a GPS device violated his First Amendment rights dooms his claim.
Afifi's claim of Privacy Act violations caused by the FBI's continued retention of his case records after closing the investigation doesn't fare any better. There's plenty of precedent out there stating that relevant investigative records are forever even if the investigation isn't.
In addition, the fact that the investigation into the plaintiff is now closed does not render the records invalid under Section (e)(7). The D.C. Circuit has held that an agency may maintain records from an authorized investigation even after that investigation was closed, because “[m]aterials may continue to be relevant to a law enforcement activity long after a particular investigation undertaken pursuant to that activity has been closed...”
The present case is no different. The records now in the FBI’s possession may permit the FBI to verify or evaluate any new intelligence received, assess the reliability of other sources, and ensure accountability regarding how the FBI responded to the information it received.
Howell also points out that challenges to warrantless searches generally result in suppression of evidence, not nullification of entire investigations. Afifi's claims that he is being locked out by potential employers because of his run-in with the FBI are dismissed as "self-inflicted" -- not because Afifi had the misfortune of being acquainted with a person whose Reddit comment drew FBI heat, but because he "reported his confrontation with the FBI agents to local and national media, and the media published numerous stories about the encounter."
The moral of this tale seems to be that if you discover a tracking device on your vehicle, there's no faster way to be rid of it than posting pictures of it on a heavily-trafficked website. (As opposed to, say, throwing it in a lake, as one commenter suggested.) You may not find relief through the courts, but at least you'll be ensured of some form of closure.