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U.S. Supreme Court Unanimously Backs Privacy Rights In GPS Tracking Case

In a rare unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled on January 23, 2012, in U.S. v Antoine Jones,  that attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s vehicle is a search under the Fourth Amendment.   In one of the first major cases to test constitutional privacy rights in the digital age, the court ruled that police must obtain a search warrant before attaching a GPS tracker to a vehicle in a criminal investigation.

The court issued three separate written opinions.  The majority opinion was authored by Justice Scalia and was joined by Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas and Sotomayor.   Justice Sotomayer also authored her own separate written opinion.  Justice Alito also issued a concurring opinion which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan.  The justices divided on the rationale for the decision, with the majority saying that the constitutional problem was the “trespass” required to place the GPS device on the privately owned vehicle.

The government had contended that attaching the small GPS device to a vehicle’s undercarriage was too trivial a violation of property or privacy rights to matter, and that no person who drives on public streets could expect one’s movements to go unseen.  Thus, the government argued, the placement and use of a GPS tracking device was "reasonable," meaning that law enforcement should be free to employ it for any reason without first justifying it to a Judge by being required to obtain a search warrant.

Justice Thomas wrote in the majority opinion that:

We hold that the Government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle,  and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a “search.”  It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case: The Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information.  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 fact that the government had “trespassed” onto the private undercarriage of the suspect vehicle in order to install the GPS tracking device was critical to the legal analysis in the written majority opinion. 

Justice Sotomayer wrote her concurring opinion to make clear that she hinged her analysis on a broader basis than the government’s mere trespass to install the device.  Justice Sotomayer wrote as follows:

[T]he trespassory test applied in the majority’s opinion reflects an irreducible constitutional minimum: When the Government physically invades personal property to gather information, a search occurs.  The reaffirmation of that principle suffices to decide this case  ...  I would ask whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated in a manner that enables the Government to ascertain, more or less at will, their political and religious beliefs, sexual habits, and so on. ... I would also consider the appropriateness of entrusting to the Executive, in the absence of any oversight from a coordinate branch, a tool so amenable to misuse, especially in light of the Fourth Amendment’s goal to curb arbitrary exercises of police power to and prevent“a too permeating police surveillance.”

Justice Alito’s written opinion also criticized the majority opinion for being too narrowly hinged on a “trespass” analysis.    Justice Alito wrote as follows:

[R]elatively short-term monitoring of a person’s movements on public streets accords with expectations of privacy that our society has recognized as reasonable. ... But the use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy. For such offenses, society’s expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others would not—and indeed, in the main, simply could not—secretly monitor and catalogue every single movement of an individual’s car for a very long period. In this case, for four weeks, law enforcement agents tracked every movement that respondent made in the vehicle he was driving. We need not identify with precision the point at which the tracking of this vehicle became a search, for the line was surely crossed before the 4-week mark. Other cases may present more difficult questions. But where uncertainty exists with respect to whether a certain period of GPS surveillance is long enough to constitute a Fourth Amendment search, the police may always seek a warrant.

Justice Alito’s opinion left open the question of whether short term monitoring by a GPS tracking device might be permissible without a search warrant.  It also left open the possibility that there were certain criminal offenses for which the use of a GPS tracking device by the government without a warrant might be permissible.

The case concerned Antoine Jones, who was the owner of a Washington nightclub when law enforcement came to suspect him of being part of a drug dealing organization.   Police placed a GPS tracking device on his vehicle  without a valid warrant and tracked his vehicle's movement for approximately one month.   The government, over the objections of Jones’ criminal defense attorney, used the evidence gathered from the GPS device to convict him of conspiracy to sell cocaine.  Jones was sentenced to life in prison

To read the entire Supreme Court Opinion click here.

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