On January 23, 2012, the United States Supreme Court issued it’s decision in United States v. Jones. The Jones decision is noteworthy because it requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant when using a GPS device. A look at the facts in Jones is necessary to understand the Court’s reasoning.
The Government obtained a search warrant which allowed it to install a GPS tracking device on a car registered to Jones’ wife. The warrant authorized the GPS to be installed within 10 days of the issuance of the search warrant. The agents waited until the 11th day to install the device (after the expiration of the warrant). Then the Government tracked the vehicle’s movements for 28 days.
As a result of the tracking of the vehicle an indictment was issued charging Jones with drug trafficking and conspiracy. The trial court issued a split decision when Jones moved to suppress the evidence obtained by use of the GPS device, stating when the vehicle was parked at Jones’ house it was an illegal search but when it was on the public streets there wasn’t any expectation of privacy and therefore no illegal search. Jones was convicted and appealed.
At oral argument the Supreme Court members voiced concern that even they could be placed under surveillance at the whim of the Government without the benefit of a search warrant. In other words, the buffer between an invasion of privacy by the Government was becoming so intrusive without a court officer’s watchful eye anyone’s privacy could be invaded at any time. In its decision the Court held the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects “persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”. The Governments’ physical intrusion on an “effect” (car) for the purpose of obtaining information equals a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The Court did not address the Government’s contention that Jones did not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” because the Court focused on the Government trespass on the area where the GPS device was placed.
Significantly, the Court did not overrule the recent line of cases which sanctioned monitoring by other forms of electronic devices such as beepers without a search warrant. In addition, while the decision was unanimous not all the justices joined in the rationale for the decision. In essence, the Supreme Court didn’t want to allow such GPS devices to be placed on vehicles without a search warrant but had varied reasons why it was a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Because of this lack of unanimity of reason, the decision may not have the far reaching effect that some think it does.