U.S. Supreme Court Rules Installation & Monitoring of GPS Tracking Device on Suspect’s Vehicle Constitutes a Search

Mar 5, 2012

The United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously this past January that attaching a GPS device to suspect’s car constitutes a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and thus requires a valid search warrant. The case, United States v. Jones, arose when the Washington D.C. police department installed a GPS device on Mr. Jones’ car as part of a drug trafficking investigation. They tracked his movements for almost a month, ultimately leading them to a stash house in Maryland containing nearly 100 kilos of cocaine and $1 million.

A trial court convicted Jones and sentenced him to life in prison. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed, finding that the police’s gathering of evidence after its warrant for the GPS tracking device had expired violated the Fourth Amendment. Once before the Supreme Court, the justices faced the question of what constitutes reasonable privacy rights in the digital era.

The opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia – joined by Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas and Sotomayor, – began by noting that the U.S. government had to occupy private property for the purpose of obtaining the information. Justice Scalia wrote, “We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.” The majority concluded that installing the device, and using it to monitor the defendant together constituted a search by committing a trespass onto the defendant’s property right in his car for the purpose of gathering information.

The minority pushed for a more sweeping declaration that installing the GPS tracker not only trespassed on private property, but violated the suspect’s reasonable expectation of privacy by monitoring his movements for an extended period of time (a month). Justice Alito wrote in a concurring opinion that limiting Fourth Amendment protections to trespassing property as understood in the 18th Century is “unwise” and “highly artificial.” He added that, “it is almost impossible to think of late 19th century situations” analogous to placing a GPS tracker on the car. The majority held that it wasn’t necessary to go that far, because the act of putting the tracker on the car invaded the suspect’s property in the same way that a home search would.

Justice Sotomayor, while joining the Scalia opinion, wrote separately to set out various privacy issues that emerging technology presented, citing the fact that so many routine actions now are tracked by private websites. She suggested that the Court’s ruling that a person “has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties” was “ill suited to the digital age.” “People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers; the URLs that they visit and the e-mail addresses with which they correspond to their Internet service providers; and the books, groceries, and medications they purchase to online retailers,” Sotomayor wrote. “I for one doubt that people would accept without complaint the warrantless disclosure to the Government of a list of every Web site they had visited in the last week, month, or year.”

The Jones decision is viewed by many as a pivotal event in Fourth Amendment history. Privacy advocates said that despite the differences in the opinions, the court’s unanimity on the outcome sends a strong message. Although the ruling focused on police use of GPS devices to monitor a vehicle’s location, the justices opened the door to further debate about the use of technology to track people’s movements.

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