The Nevada Supreme Court is currently considering whether a “John Doe” client who hired a private detective to track Reno’s mayor with a GPS device has a protected First Amendment right to anonymity. The client believes that remaining anonymous is fundamental to democracy and the business of politics. The court approved the latest brief in the case with the true name of the client under seal to keep their identity undisclosed, at least for the time being. The justices are considering an appeal filed by the detective after a Washoe County judge ordered him to name their client who hired him to monitor Mayor Hillary Schieve and a county commissioner before the November election.
Lawyers for the anonymous John Doe argue that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly championed the importance of the First Amendment in protecting anonymous political activity. They suggest that the use of private investigators in political investigations is nothing new, stating it is “politics as usual.” Furthermore, the lawyers say that eliminating the assumption of confidentiality surrounding private investigators would abolish the chance of outing misconduct by politicians as people would fear retribution.
Schieve filed a lawsuit in civil court against private detective David McNeely, claiming he damaged her privacy by attaching a GPS tracking device to her vehicle. The mechanic who worked on her vehicle noticed the device was clandestine. Sparks police confirmed that McNeely had purchased it. Additionally, former Washoe County Commissioner Vaugn Hartung joined the lawsuit, alleging that a GPS monitor was attached to his vehicle without his knowledge. Although the placing of the devices was not yet illegal because of the absence of any Nevada law prohibiting it, the governor recently signed a bill last week that forbids putting trackers on vehicles without a warrant, with law enforcement officers being the exceptions.
Last month, McNeely’s lawyers appealed to the court, arguing that revealing the name of their client would be in violation of the long assumed confidentiality of a private investigator-client relationship. John Doe’s lawyers then joined the appeal, asserting that First Amendment rights protected John Doe’s right to make anonymous political investigations, help uncover misconduct or malfeasance. They argued that anonimity has been key in the progress of humanity. The lawyers also pointed out that private investigation on elected officials is and will always be part of American politics.
The lawsuit filed by Schieve and Hartung contends that McNeely trespassed on Schieve’s property to install the device on her vehicle. Schieve stated that she discovered the device about two weeks before she was re-elected in November. Hartung also won re-election but later resigned to become chairman of the Nevada Transportation Commission. Judge David Hardy made a ruling on May 4th that using a GPS tracking device to monitor a person’s movements could be a “tortious invasion of privacy.”