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Supreme Court: GPS device attached to car was an unconstitutional search

U.S. v. Jones, 565 U.S. ___ (2012)

Decision looks to 18th century sensibilities on the sanctity of personal property to resolve modern day legal problem occasioned by technology.

Today the Supreme Court issued its opinion in U.S. v. Jones, which addresses the question of whether it was a “search or seizure” under the Fourth Amendment when the police attached a GPS tracking device to a drug suspect’s car. The information gathered from the device was used to convict defendant and send him to prison for life.

An originalist kind of opinion

Justice Scalia authored an opinion (which four other justices, including Roberts and Thomas, joined) holding that the placement of the GPS device on defendant’s car was a “physical intrusion [which] would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.” Because the device was placed on the car outside the scope of the warrant authorizing it (after the warrant’s expiration and outside its geographic jurisdiction), defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated.

Property is key

Key to Court’s opinion was the Fourth Amendment’s close connection to property. Historically, Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has been tied to the concept of common-law trespass. Later cases, such as Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967) deviated from that approach, looking more to a personal interest, namely one’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Reasonable expectation of privacy does not matter here

The Government had argued that there was no search here because defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the underbody of his car, nor in the information about the public places he went. The court rejected that argument. Instead, it observed that “[a]t bottom, we must ‘assur[e] preservation of that degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted.”

This “at bottom” analysis meant looking to the property interest defendant had (as informed by principles of common law trespass). By attaching the device to defendant’s car, the officers encroached on a protected area.

Open questions about information tracking

The case involved more than the mere transmission of electronic signals. In dicta, the court noted that in cases that do not involve physical intrusion, the Katz “reasonable expectation of privacy” analysis would apply. And the court was able to skirt the thorny question of whether the pervasive gathering of information while assisted by technology (something that it would take an army of agents and vehicles to accomplish) would be unconstitutional:

It may be that achieving the same result through electronic means, without an accompanying trespass, is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, but the present case does not require us to answer that question.

Many commentators have observed that the case bears similarities to United States v. Knotts, 460 U. S. 276 (1982) which involved a location-transmitting “beeper” that was placed in a canister of chloroform, which made its way into the defendant’s trunk. In Knotts, the Court held that the gathering of location information in such a fashion did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Jones case is different — in Knotts, the cops were not reponsible for placing the canister into the vehicle. Here, the cops actually had to encroach on defendant’s property (and even changed the batteries on the device at a later date).

The Court’s decision comes as a relief to those who worried about the Orwellian-like consequences of a Government victory. It appears that all of us — including the Justices of the Supreme Court themselves — are free from indiscriminate government surveilance of this sort. It will be interesting to go back and watch This Week in Law Episode 137, where we discussed this case and its issues.

What do you think? Was the court correct in looking at 18th century doctrines to solve a 21st century problem? Let’s have a conversation below.