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Unanimous Supreme Court Finds Warrantless Use of GPS Device Violates Fourth Amendment

By: James W. Kraus
January 24, 2012

On January 23, 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the attachment of a GPS device to a suspect's vehicle, and the use of that device to monitor the vehicle's movements on public streets, constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment and requires a warrant.  The Court ruled that the government violated the Constitution by failing to obtain a warrant before attaching the GPS device, but the Justices split 5-4 over the reasoning behind the decision.  U.S. v. Jones, 565 U.S. ___(2012).

The Court's decision stems from a narcotics prosecution of Antoine Jones in the District of Columbia for conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute cocaine and crack.  During the investigation, the government obtained a warrant to attach a GPS device to the undercarriage of a vehicle registered to Jones' wife.  The warrant required installation of the device in the District of Columbia within 10 days.  On the 11th day, and not within the District of Columbia but in Maryland, government agents installed the GPS device on the undercarriage of the vehicle while it was parked in a public parking lot.  For the next 28 days, the government used the device to track the vehicle's movements. 

Prior to trial, Jones filed a motion to suppress all of the tracking data obtained with the GPS device.  While the district court suppressed some of the data, it permitted the government to present all of the data obtained while Jones was on public streets, and away from his home.  That tracking data was introduced as evidence at Jones' trial, and led to his conviction and subsequent life sentence. 

The Fourth Amendment safeguards "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."  Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, held that the government's installation of the GPS device on the vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle's movements, constituted a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.  He stated that a vehicle is an "effect" as that term is used in the Fourth Amendment.  According to Justice Scalia, attachment of the GPS device to the vehicle was the type of encroachment that would have been considered a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment at the time the Amendment was adopted.  He emphasized the long line of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that, especially prior to the latter half of the 20th century, was tied closely to the law of trespass.  The fact that a 21st century investigative technique was involved in the case was irrelevant to Justice Scalia's analysis, which rejected the concurrence's reliance on the principle of "reasonable expectation of privacy."  The determining factor for the Court's majority was that the government obtained information by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Alito split from his fellow conservatives, warning that the majority's property-based approach was too narrow to guard against threats to personal privacy in the digital age.  Justice Alito argued that the analysis should center on whether an individual's "reasonable expectations of privacy" are violated by the monitoring of the movements of his vehicle.  This is the same test the Court formulated in 1967 when it held that search warrants were required before the government could wiretap a call made from a public telephone booth.  Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967).

Even though the Justices disagreed over the reasoning behind the decision in Jones, the ruling represents unanimous recognition by the Justices of significant constitutional privacy rights in the digital age.