US v. Jones: GPS Tracking Vehicles is a Search under the 4th Amendment

Published On: 23rd January 2012
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Today, in the case of United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) held that law enforcement attaching GPS devices to vehicles is a physical trespass and constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution. In doing so, the court affirmed the lower court’s judgment suppressing the GPS tracking evidence. I posted previously regarding the use of warrantless GPS tracking by law enforcement and the civil rights suit against the government by Yasir Afifi.

United States v. Jones arose from the government attaching a GPS to the underside of Jones’ car. The government did not affix the GPS within the time prescribed by the warrant. Jones’ vehicle was tracked by the government for 28 days which led to his indictment in a federal drug conspiracy.

The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Court did not hinge its decision on a Katz v. United States analysis, which held that the Fourth Amendment protects a person’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Instead, the Court held that the physical trespass alone is enough to trigger the 4th Amendment.

What does these mean for the criminal defense practice? I believe this will reel in law enforcement’s repeated narrowing of the protections provided by the Fourth Amendment and allow the careful scrutiny by the Courts of the use of new surveillance technologies. This should also stop the increasing use of GS tracking without any judicial oversight as law enforcement would need probable cause and a warrant to attach the GPS device  to vehicles. Based on the ever-increasing use of surveillance technology by law enforcement, I would expect more appeals dealing with government monitoring its citizens in the near future.

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arose from the government attaching a GPS to the underside of Jones’ car. The government did not affix the GPS within the time prescribed by the warrant. Jones’ vehicle was tracked by the government for 28 days which led to his indictment in a federal drug conspiracy.

The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Court only held that the trespass of attaching a tracking device to a vehicle is a search for purposes of a Fourth Amendment analysis. The Court did not hinge its decision on a Katz v. United States analysis, which held that the Fourth Amendment protects a person’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Although I view this decision a step in the right direction, the Court only ruled on a narrow issue of whether GPS tracking is a search. The Court left many questions unanswered. The Court indicated a warrant should be obtained before attaching GPS units to suspects’ vehicles, but did not seem to elaborate too much regarding the limitations of GPS tracking.

What does these mean for the criminal defense practice? I believe this will reel in law enforcement’s repeated narrowing of the protections provided by the Fourth Amendment and allow the careful scrutiny by the Courts of the use of new surveillance technologies. However, this decision did not go far enough and the issue remains relatively unresolved to provide sufficient guidance for lower courts. Based on the ever-increasing use of surveillance technology by law enforcement, I would expect more appeals dealing with government monitoring its citizens in the near future.

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