Supreme Court Unanimously Holds that Placing GPS Tracking Device on Automobile Without a Valid Warrant is a Fourth Amendment "Search"

January 23, 2012 by Paul Kish

Earlier this morning the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous 9-0 decision, holding that the police engaged in a Fourth Amendment "search" when, without the benefit of a valid warrant, they put a GPS tracking device on a suspect's vehicle. The case is Jones v. United States. This is potentially a huge ruling that we need to assess more fully in the days and weeks to come, but for now, let's look at the decision itself.

Law enforcement officials in the District of Columbia suspected Antoine Jones of being a large-scale drug trafficker. Among other investigative tools, they wanted to put a Global-Positioning-System (GPS) monitor on a vehicle that Jones regularly drove. The officers got a warrant, but messed up and did not put the monitor on the vehicle within the 10-day window authorized by the judge who issued the warrant. As a result, the monitor was put on the vehicle without the benefit of a valid warrant. The GPS monitor tracked Jones' travels for about a month, resulting in evidence that tied him to a large drug stash-house, among other information. This evidence was then used to convict Jones.

All nine justices on the Supreme Court agreed that this was an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. Although they all reached the same result, there is a big difference between the justices as to the underlying rationale for the decision.

Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion for himself and four other justices. Scalia basically resurrected the property-based view of the Fourth Amendment, noting that the officers engaged in an old-fashioned common law trespass when they placed the GPS monitor on the vehicle. Such a trespass is always a "search" when accompanied by an intention to obtain information.

Justice Alioto wrote a concurrence for he and three other justices. Alito wanted to retain the "reasonable expectation of privacy" ruling from the seminal Katz v. United States decision. Under Alito's theory, suppression decisions would turn not on who owned property but on whether society currently recognizes that a person has an expectation that certain information would not be exposed to law enforcement. Alito almost always tries to help the prosecution, so his theory would often result in a ruling that no "search" occurred.

Justice Sotomayor sided with Justice Scalia's majority opinion, but her concurrence may be the most prescient part of the whole case. Proving that she is beginning to be the intellectual force on the Court that many predicted, Justice Sotomayor noted that both views may become more important in light of the rapid advance of technology in our modern day world. "GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail abouther familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations." She further notes that because it is so cheap to do, the police will resort to such secret electronic monitoring more and more. She ponders whether most people really expect that their government might track their daily movements.

Justice Sotomayor also ponders whether we should re-think the line of cases holding that people abandon their expectation of privacy when they turn property over to a third party. She notes that we expose vast quantities of private information when communicating with a bank, or even using our internet service provider to surf for a new restaurant. She doubts whether most Americans would believe they surrendered their privacy rights in this situation just because they agreed to the ISP's terms of service.

This is a fascinating decision with roots in the past but application for the present and future. We are glad to see the Supreme Court issue a decision that recognizes the importance of personal property rights, privacy, and the need to keep government in check.