Supreme Court Deciding Whether to Occupy 1984 — Is Your Privacy at Stake in US v. Jones?

Supreme Court Deciding Whether to Occupy 1984 — Is Your Privacy at Stake in US v. Jones?

Supreme Court Deciding Whether to Occupy 1984 — Is Your Privacy at Stake in US v. Jones?

On November 8, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments for its review of U.S. v. Jones (U.S. v. Maynard), the Fourth Amendment-focused case which has garnered much attention in the news over the past few weeks. The issue before the Court is whether the warrantless use of a GPS tracking device by the police violates a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. However the implications of this decision can affect our privacy in Orwellian proportions.

If you haven’t yet heard, U.S. v. Jones is a tale of two District of Columbia night club owners, Antoine Jones and Lawrence Maynard, who went on trial for conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and 50 grams or more of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841 and 846. But while neither Jones nor Maynard deleted files, destroyed hard drives, nor compromised privileged electronic communications, their case has caught the attention of our site because the trial court admitted evidence acquired by the warrantlessuse of a Global Positioning System (GPS) device to track Jones’ movements continuously for a month. Because the use of such a tracking device without a warrant treads such a fine line across the “unreasonable search and seizure” provision of the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court granted Certiorari to decide just how much of an effect the advancement of technology has had on our Fourth Amendment rights to privacy.

In Jones, the defendant was under investigation for his alleged involvement in a cocaine-selling operation. Prosecutors successfully obtained a warrant to attach a GPS tracking device to defendant’s car, but under the stipulations of the warrant, this needed to be done in D.C., within 10 days. However, investigators installed the tracker on the 11th day, in Maryland, contending that the warrant they previously obtained was no longer required. Using the tracker, police monitored Jones’ globe-trotting for a month, and eventually obtained enough evidence to put him behind bars for a life sentence. On appeal, the DC Circuit court reversed Jones’ conviction, and the case presently sits on the docket at 10-1259.

As this case gets decided, it is important to note both schools of thought on the issue. On the one hand, proponents of the warrantless use of GPS tracking technologies point to the fact that police are already allowed to “tail” cars, record their routes, and observe their time stopped at various destinations without warrants. A device such as a GPS tracker attached to the outside of a suspect’s car merely allows law enforcement to do these same things in a much more efficient manner.

On the other hand, privacy advocates like

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the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) see a major distinction between traditional “tailing” surveillance and the use of a GPS tracker. In its Friend of the Court brief, EPIC insists that this type of warrantless surveillance constitutes “pervasive mass surveillance of the public by law enforcement agents” which “offend[s] the right[s] of individuals to operate vehicles on public roads while maintaining privacy and their right to be free of unreasonable searches.” Furthermore, EPIC notes the natural progression for GPS products to be installed in every motor vehicle, pointing out that if a position isn’t taken to limit law enforcement’s use of GPS data soon, officer’s won’t even need to go through the trouble of attaching a tracker device to gather detailed location information about a suspect.

The decision

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is a major one for the Court, and because of the split in the circuits on which way to go on warrantless GPS tracking, a difficult one to predict. To join Orwell’s ghost and follow along with this case, visit the SCoTUS Blog.

Comments (2):

  1. Now that the decision has been affirmed, what are your thoughts on Scalia’s emphasis on physical intrusions? Does his opinion go far enough to protect against warrantless searches considering other forms of surveillance? For instance, in some jurisdictions police can request cell tower information and triangulate a person’s position without a warrant.

  2. I disagree. I think Justice Alito’s concurrence is more significant. Justice Scalia’s reliance on pure physical intrusion is anachronistic and will be treated as such by the courts downstream. Longterm, Justice Alito’s more pro-privacy approach will provide a workable framework when the Court is again presented with the question of whether or not longterm GPS monitoring is in fact a search.

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