Jan 31, 2012

SCOTUS Imposes Warrant Requirement for GPS Vehicle Tracking

Last Monday, the SCOTUS issued a 5-4 decision in what could turn into a seminal 4th Amendment case; United States vs Jones.  The High Court strongly embraced privacy here in the electronic age.

In 2004, Antoine Jones owned and operated a hopping night club in downtown Washington D.C.  His joint was so jumpin, it caught the attention of a joint drug task force consisting of the FBI and the Washington PD.

The task force staked out the club by filming all the action at the front door.  Also, Jones' cell phones were tapped and data dumped.  With this evidence in hand, the task force applied for and was granted a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on Jones' wife's Jeep Cherokee within 10-days and within the District of Colombia.

Problem: the GPS device was placed on Jones' vehicle on the 11th day, and in Maryland.  The vehicle was tracked for 28-days and a case for cocaine distribution was submitted for prosecution based, in part, on the evidence collected through the GPS tracker.

Prior to his first trial, Jones moved to suppress the GPS data; his motion was only granted in part.  The trial resulted in a hung jury.  Jones was tried again, and ultimately he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The federal appellate court, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, reversed Jones' conviction and SCOTUS granted the U.S. Solicitor's petition for certerorari.  On appeal, the government conceded to the botched execution of the warrant, arguing no warrant was needed in the first place.

Last November, when the case was orally argued before the United States Supreme Court, the Justices were clearly troubled by the government's argument.  An appellate lawyer can glean a lot about the likely outcome of a case from the questions justices and judges pose, or don't pose, during oral argument.

In Jones, Justice Steven Breyer likened the government's position to George Orwell's 1984, commenting to the Solicitor General, "If you win this case, there is nothing to prevent police or government from monitoring 24-hours a day, every citizen of the United States."

Chief Justice John Roberts wanted to know whether the Solicitor General's argument meant that the government could place tracking devices on the vehicles of the 9 Justices.

The opinions themselves, contain Justices' musings [dicta] on what the founders would have ruled back in 1791, regarding these confounded GPS devices.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a concurrence taking a broad view of our privacy protections guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, against the many highly sophisticated new electronic tracking devices deployed by the government.  Justice Anthony Scalia, writing for the majority, tailored a more narrow view of privacy; couching his conclusion on the basic definition of a "search", and clearly demarcating our "expectation of privacy" to include satellite tracking device-free vehicles.  

Flatly rejecting the government's argument that the temporary installation of the GPS tracking device was not a search, the Scalia majority affirmed the DC Circuit's reversal of Jones' conviction, warning authorities they needed a probable cause warrant in order to attach tracking devices.

Other than Sotomayor's concurrence, which does not bind future courts, SCOTUS  did not provide a sweeping enhancement of privacy rights in the electronic age.

Dodging a serious sentencing bullet, life, Mr. Jones is now free to go; his conviction for distributing cocaine stays reversed.



1 comment:

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