United States v. Jones: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Can Police Officers Use GPS to Track a Vehicle?

A police car in a side mirror

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In United States v. Jones (2012) the U.S. Supreme Court found that attaching a GPS tracker to a private vehicle constituted an illegal search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Fast Facts: United States v. Jones

Case Argued: November 8, 2011

Decision Issued: January 23, 2012

Petitioner: Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice

Respondent: Antoine Jones, a Washington D.C. nightclub owner

Key Questions: Does the Fourth Amendment allow police officers to place and monitor a GPS tracking device on a private vehicle?

Unanimous Decision: Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan

Ruling: The act of placing a tracker on a vehicle and recording data from that tracker is an illegal trespass on someone's property, violating the Fourth Amendment.

Facts of the Case

In 2004 Antoine Jones, a Washington D.C. nightclub owner, came under police suspicion for possession and trafficking of narcotics. He became the target of an investigation run by a joint task force that involved the metropolitan police and the FBI. The taskforce observed Jones using a variety of tactics. In 2005, police obtained a warrant to place a GPS tracker on a Jeep Grand Cherokee registered to Jones' wife. The court granted permission to use the tracker, as long as it was installed in Washington D.C. and within 10 days of the issuance of the warrant.

On the 11th day and in Maryland, police attached a GPS tracker to the Jeep while parked in a public lot. They recorded information transmitted from the tracker. The device tracked the vehicle's location within 50 to 100 feet. Over the course of four weeks, police received nearly 2,000 pages of information based on the vehicle's whereabouts.

Eventually, Jones and multiple alleged co-conspirators were indicted for conspiracy to distribute narcotics and intent to possess and distribute narcotics. Leading up to his trial, Jones' attorney filed a motion to suppress evidence gathered from the GPS tracker. The District Court granted it in part. They suppressed the information gathered while Jones' car sat parked in the garage at his house. The Jeep was on private property and therefore the search was an intrusion on his privacy, the Court ruled. While driving around public streets or parked in a public are, they reasoned, he had a lesser expectation that his movements would be "private." The trial resulted in a hung jury.

In 2007, a grand jury indicted Jones once again. The government offered the same evidence gathered through the GPS tracker. This time, the jury found Jones guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. The United States Court of Appeals reversed the conviction. The information from the GPS tracker constituted a warrantless search, the Court found. The U.S. Supreme Court took the case on a writ of certiorari.

Constitutional Question

Did the use of a GPS tracker installed on Jones' vehicle violate his Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless searches and seizures? Is the use of a device to transmit the location of a vehicle considered a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment?

Arguments

The government argued that vehicles access public streets regularly and are not subject to an expectation of privacy in the same way that a home is. Attorneys relied on two cases: United States v. Knotts and United States v. Karo. In both cases, police attached a hidden beeper to track a suspect's location. Even though the suspect didn't know the beeper was hidden within a container that had been given to him, the Supreme Court ruled the use of the beeper valid. The Court found that the beeper had not intruded on the suspect's privacy. In this case, the government argued, the police had used a GPS tracker on Jones' car in a similar manner. It had not intruded on his privacy.

Attorneys on behalf of Jones pointed out that GPS trackers are a 24-hour form of surveillance. Prior to trackers, police used beepers, which were the subject of previous Court decisions in Karo and Knotts. Beepers functioned differently from trackers. They helped police tail a vehicle by letting out a short-range signal. GPS trackers, on the other hand, offer a "long-term pattern of movements and stops," the attorneys reasoned. The tracker gave police an unprecedented level of information about Jones' whereabouts and daily life. Police intruded on Jones' privacy, violating his Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless searches and seizures.

Majority Opinion

Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the unanimous decision. Police had violated Jones' Fourth Amendment right to be free of warrantless searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” A vehicle is an "effect," Justice Scalia wrote. In order to install a GPS tracking device onto this "effect," police trespassed on Jones' property.

Justice Scalia chose not to evaluate whether the length of the surveillance mattered. Whether or not officers tracked the vehicle for 2 days or 4 weeks did not matter in the case at hand, he wrote. Instead, the majority's opinion hinged on physical trespass on private property. "The Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information," Justice Scalia wrote. Property rights are not the sole determinants of Fourth Amendment violations, but they are constitutionally significant. In this case, Justice Scalia argued, the police trespassed by placing the tracker on the private vehicle. That trespass cannot be overlooked, Justice Scalia wrote.

Concurrence

Justice Samuel Alito authored a concurrence, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Stephen Breyer, and Justice Elena Kagan. The Justices agreed with the Court's ultimate decision but disagreed with how the Court reached its conclusion. Justice Alito argued that the Court should have relied on the "reasonableness test" established in Katz v. United States. In Katz, the Court found the use of a wiretap device on a public phone booth illegal. The Court did not rely on a "trespass of private property" to determine that the search was illegal. The device was placed on the outside of the booth. The legality of the search relied on whether or not the subject of the wiretap had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" within the phone booth. Basically, if someone would generally believe in a given situation that their conversation would be private, they have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" and a warrant is needed to conduct a search or seizure. Concurring justices advocated for the expectation-of-privacy test established in Katz. This test, they argued, would help the Court uphold privacy in an era when it is increasingly simple to track someone's private information remotely. "Ironically, the Court has chosen to decide this case based on 18th-century tort law," Justice Alito wrote.

Impact

United States v. Jones was closely watched by lawyers and privacy enthusiasts. However, the impact of the case may be less dramatic than it initially seemed. The case does not entirely prohibit police from placing GPS trackers on vehicles. Instead, it requires them to obtain warrants to do so. Some legal scholars have suggested that United States v. Jones will simply encourage better record-keeping and oversight in police procedure. Other scholars have noted that United States v. Jones presents an exciting opportunity for the future of the Fourth Amendment. Justices acknowledged that new developments in technology require an evolving understanding of privacy rights. This could lead to further Fourth Amendment protections in the future.

Sources

  • United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012).
  • Liptak, Adam. “Justices Say GPS Tracker Violated Privacy Rights.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Jan. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/01/24/us/police-use-of-gps-is-ruled-unconstitutional.html.
  • Harper, Jim. “U.S. v. Jones: Fourth Amendment Law at a Crossroads.” Cato Institute, 8 Oct. 2012, www.cato.org/policy-report/septemberoctober-2012/us-v-jones-fourth-amendment-law-crossroads.
  • Colb, Sherry F. “The Supreme Court Decides the GPS Case, United States v. Jones, and the Fourth Amendment Evolves: Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns.” Justia Verdict Comments, 10 Sept. 2012, verdict.justia.com/2012/02/15/the-supreme-court-decides-the-gps-case-united-states-v-jones-and-the-fourth-amendment-evolves-2.