Government placement and use of GPS tracker on vehicle is a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, requiring a search warrant

United States v.  Jones,  ___ US. ___, No. 10-1259, 1/23/12 (12 pages)

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government violated Mr. Jones’  Fourth Amendment rights when, after the expiration of a warrant authorizing the placement of a GPS tracking device on his Jeep Cherokee, it placed the device on the vehicle and tracked it for another 28 days. Mr. Jones was subsequently charged with several drug offenses.

Four Justices joined Justice Scalia’s majority opinion, which held that the placement of the GPS tracking device was a physical intrusion that would have been considered a search when the Fourth Amendment was adopted. In support of this proposition Justice Scalia cited an English case from 1765.

Justice Sotomayor, who joined Justice Scalia’s opinion, wrote a concurring opinion positing that in a future case it might be unwise to measure the legality of the government’s tracking an individual’s movements or other acts merely by asking whether there was a physical intrusion. Justice Alito, writing for the remaining Justices who concurred in the judgment, prefers determining whether a particular surveillance technique runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment by measuring how or if it impinges on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, Justice Alito asked whether Justice Scalia’s physical intrusion test is sufficient to protect the interests of a suspect followed by the police who have activated a stolen car radio beacon the suspect installed when buying the car, or systems that come with cars today that track a car’s location for safety purposes. He concludes that since United States v. Katz, 389 U. S. 347 (1967), which involved a surveillance device attached to the outside of a phone booth, the focus in cases involving technological means of surveillance has as much to do about expectations of privacy as a physical intrusion. Justice Scalia’s opinion acknowledges these concerns, but concludes that under the facts of this case, there is no need to go there to resolve the question before the Court.

The opinion can be found here.


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