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United States v. Jones
January 23, 2012 3:18 PM   Subscribe

In a unanimous decision [PDF], the Supreme Court has ruled on United States v. Jones and found that placement of a GPS tracker on a car by police is a violation of the fourth amendment—but is the ruling as clear-cut as it seems?

"[The ruling] leaves two questions unanswered. First, does the 'search' caused by installing a GPS device require a warrant? … Second, assuming no warrant is required for installation, is a warrant required for short-term monitoring of the GPS device?" The decision also questions the Court's view on the so-called "mosaic" theory, which "seems like a revolutionary new approach to Fourth Amendment law, and yet here 5 Justices seem ready to embrace it without even really recognizing how dramatic the change might be or what it might mean."
posted by reductiondesign (35 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
"The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all."

H.L. Mencken

posted by Doleful Creature at 3:28 PM on January 23, 2012 [24 favorites]


I'll give Scalia this, he don't like newfangled monitoring devices, see Kyllo v. U.S.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:32 PM on January 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Does that just mean we're temporarily safe until the old fogeys get replaced by justices who've used a GPS?
posted by yerfatma at 3:41 PM on January 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Good news-- but is it actually bad news????
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:43 PM on January 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


I haven't read much of the "Cato @ Liberty" link but the first paragraph seems to make an unwarranted conflation between radio beepers placed inside a product at the permission of the owner of the product (and subsequently sold) and GPS devices placed in a car without the permission of the owner of the car. The US vs. Knotts opinion also notes and documents extensively the fact that the Supreme Court's opinion on privacy and technology changes quite often.

I haven't finished reading opinions (and IANAL), but this jumped right out at me.
posted by muddgirl at 3:44 PM on January 23, 2012


Ugh, I probably should have read further before I posted my comment :(
posted by muddgirl at 3:45 PM on January 23, 2012


I'm finding it interesting to see Alito and Kagan on the same side of the issue in a few of the recent opinions.
posted by MoonOrb at 3:53 PM on January 23, 2012


. . .and yet here 5 Justices seem ready to embrace it without even really recognizing how dramatic the change might be or what it might mean.

This is hardly unusual for the Roberts court.
posted by absalom at 3:54 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why GPS ruling will improve your privacy rights -- "Supreme Court's ruling against warrantless GPS tracking is likely to enhance Americans' privacy rights in other hot-button disputes, including warrantless cell phone tracking."
posted by ericb at 3:58 PM on January 23, 2012


We wouldn't have to decide this bullshit if drugs were legal.
posted by empath at 4:00 PM on January 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


We wouldn't have to decide this bullshit if drugs were legal.

What about the case of that dude with an Arabic-sounding name who found an FBI GPS tracker on his car? I thought that was terrorism-related, not drugs.
posted by muddgirl at 4:03 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because we would be high?
posted by rosswald at 4:04 PM on January 23, 2012


Alito vs. Scalia -- "The two conservative Supreme Court justices brawl over technology and privacy."
posted by ericb at 4:05 PM on January 23, 2012


Ah, the stop was about drugs. Withdrawn with apologies.
posted by rosswald at 4:07 PM on January 23, 2012


The Atlantic: Why the Jones Supreme Court Ruling on GPS Tracking Is Worse Than It Sounds.
posted by ericb at 4:08 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The scary thing is as all these spy gadgets get cheaper for private citizens to perform the same GPS tagging, video bugging, etc as the cops will make everyone Batman in their own private dystopia!
posted by xtian at 4:09 PM on January 23, 2012


The scary thing is as all these spy gadgets get cheaper for private citizens to perform the same GPS tagging, video bugging, etc as the cops will make everyone Batman in their own private dystopia!

Actually, they cannot do that.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:11 PM on January 23, 2012


ericb: “The Atlantic: Why the Jones Supreme Court Ruling on GPS Tracking Is Worse Than It Sounds.”

Wow, even the header of that article is flatly incorrect.
posted by koeselitz at 4:11 PM on January 23, 2012


From Sotomayor's concurrence:

Resolution of these difficult questions in this case isunnecessary, however, because the Government’s physical intrusion on Jones’ Jeep supplies a narrower basis for decision. I therefore join the majority’s opinion.

And that's the crux of it, I think. They don't have to interpret or invent new interpretations to the 4th amendment when there is a perfectly valid precedent available to them. They can't decide cases that aren't in front of them. This is a good decision.
posted by gjc at 4:13 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


At bottom, the Court must “assur[e] preservation of that degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted.”

I look forward to seeing that quoted in invasive technology cases for the rest of my natural life.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:20 PM on January 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


I agree with the outcome, but I can only imagine the frustration on the part of the prosecutors and investigators. The warrantless GPS data was used to find Jones' stash house, which contained $850,000 in cash, 97 kilograms of cocaine, and a kilogram of cocaine base.
posted by Mr Mister at 4:28 PM on January 23, 2012


I think I heart Sotomayor. A quote from her opinion, even though she ruled with the majority on the more limited rights:

But since "physical intrusion is now unnecessary to many forms of surveillance," the existing safeguards no longer necessarily "constrain abusive law enforcement practices." She warns if the Fourth Amendment fails to protect privacy, the effects could squash other freedoms, such as expression, as people worry about government monitoring them more constantly. In particular, Sotomayor writes that the area of Fourth Amendment law known as the third-party doctrine needs revisiting.

Also, it's good to see Glenn Greenwald's fears about Justice Kagan's views on executive power aren't as great as he claimed. Although considering this was a unanimous decision, it doesn't completely end that fear.
posted by formless at 4:39 PM on January 23, 2012


Mr. Mister, that's the way constitutional law works. There are no "constitutional cops." Overturning convictions is the *only* sanction which discourages police from violating your rights. That means letting obvious bad guys go once in awhile. The answer to that problem is for the cops to stick to the rules.
posted by localroger at 4:39 PM on January 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


I agree with the outcome, but I can only imagine the frustration on the part of the prosecutors and investigators.

The drug laws are absurd and unjust; we should celebrate when their enforcers are thwarted.
posted by Mars Saxman at 4:42 PM on January 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


Here is the ACLU's take per an email I just got from them:

Earlier today, in a big victory for privacy rights, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Jones that the government violated the Fourth Amendment when it attached a GPS device to Antoine Jones's car and tracked his movements continuously for a month without a warrant. The ACLU filed an amicus in the case.

This was a critical decision for defending the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from unreasonable searches. But even more significant, this was the first time in 20 years, the Supreme Court has had to consider the constitutionality of location-tracking technology.

As the court made clear, attaching a GPS device to a car and tracking its movements implicates the Fourth Amendment. Unfortunately, the government is likely to persist in arguing that the decision does not apply to tracking the location of cell phones.

Tell Congress: The government can't use our cell phones as tracking devices without a warrant.

posted by bearwife at 4:57 PM on January 23, 2012


Mr Mister wrote: I agree with the outcome, but I can only imagine the frustration on the part of the prosecutors and investigators. The warrantless GPS data was used to find Jones' stash house, which contained $850,000 in cash, 97 kilograms of cocaine, and a kilogram of cocaine base

Oh, they still get to keep all that. Don't think that being found not guilty means you get forfeit property returned.
posted by wierdo at 5:33 PM on January 23, 2012


The scary thing is as all these spy gadgets get cheaper for private citizens to perform the same GPS tagging, video bugging, etc as the cops will make everyone Batman in their own private dystopia!

Actually, they cannot do that.


Well, they can't ask for citizens to go Batman, no. But if citizens decide to go all Batman and bring the cops the information, the cops can then get a warrant and act upon it. If you see something, say something. Private citizens are not bound by the fourth amendment, and police forces are not bound from acting on information given to them which was obtained by a private citizen in a way which would have been in violation of the fourth amendment if performed by a police officer.

Anyway, my friends and I expected much of this, but not the way it came out. We expected Scalia to use the trespass theory, as well as the "reasonable expectation of privacy" theory, instead of just one. Didn't expect the Alito split. Didn't expect Sotomayor to be the one voice for the opinion which (read the blogs) basically everyone kind of saw as the clear and sensible outcome of this case. Weird.

Perhaps Sotomayor is the only one with a clear enough understanding of current technology that she is at once fearful of it's future use in fourth amendment cases and yet not so wary as to lay down some ground rules? I don't know. I'm more hopeful that others are here, though. I get the sense that the court is feeling out the issue in ways which will generally continue to take their cues from Kyllo, and no matter what else happens (and what else you think of him) Scalia will continue to be the go-to guy on the bench for making sure that 4th Amendment cases come out the right way.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:37 PM on January 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


weirdo: "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine means that anything discovered by the police as a result of their unlawful searches may well be inadmissible as well, subject to some exceptions, such as whether it would have been inevitably found in the course of normal police work anyway (unlikely in this case.) Basically, if they raided the stash house based upon the GPS data and no other independent sources, then no, it's not admissible.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:30 PM on January 23, 2012


As long as my right to use a GPS as a private citizen is still secure. Anyone want to know where cortex's car is right now? How about now?
posted by cjorgensen at 6:42 PM on January 23, 2012


I agree with the outcome, but I can only imagine the frustration on the part of the prosecutors and investigators. The warrantless GPS data was used to find Jones' stash house, which contained $850,000 in cash, 97 kilograms of cocaine, and a kilogram of cocaine base.

The ruling means that in future investigations, they'll have to get a warrant. That's reasonable, I think.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:54 PM on January 23, 2012


The ruling means that in future investigations, they'll have to get a warrant.

This ruling means that future drug dealers will be labeled as Terrorists so these laws won't apply to them.
posted by swift at 7:10 PM on January 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Okay, so now I've done the real leg-work and read the whole decision.

TL;DR version:

SCALIA, J. (joined by ROBERTS, C.J., as well as THOMAS and KENNEDY, JJ.): The Fourth Amendment in it's plainest language prohibits a warrantless search of a personas effects, and we have long held that a vehicle is a person's effect. Katz introduces a broader standard of invasion of a "reasonable expectation of privacy" but we don't need to go into that here. Attaching the device to Jones' car, even if it wasn't registered to him but was just given to him for his exclusive use - was a police trespass. We don't need Katz. This is enough. Illegal Search.

ALITO, J. (joined by GINSBURG, BREYER and KAGAN, JJ.): Katz makes the old "trespass" theory irrelevant, and the "Trespass" theory doesn't do anything to explain what standard we should use for technology in the future. Specifically, we shouldn't decide it at all, we should let the legislature decide, like they did with wiretapping (after we kind of decided that for them but we're not really going to belabor that point.) This violated a reasonable expectation of privacy, which is what's important to our questions in the future, and the "trespass" theory is useless now.

SOTOMAYOR, J.: This violates trespass, like Scalia said. It also violates Katz. Tons of questions are going to come up in the future about technology. We need both of these and need to consider both. I'm agreeing with Scalia here because, yeah, he's right, trespass should be the minimum baseline here and we don't need any more than that, but let's not narrow the fourth amendment in either direction, 'kay?

The weirdest thing to me, with all of this, is that the Alito opinion (which three others joined!) cites the archaic civil tort definition of "trespass to chattels" as the source for Scalia's claim of trespass, something which Scalia never does unless I missed it somehow, and then dismisses his trespass theory on that ground. It is not just possible, but necessary to have different standards for criminal law (and the law of criminal procedure) as it is for torts, but they run with that anyway.

No matter. A Majority held that it constituted a common-law trespass. A Majority also held that it constituted a violation of a reasonable expectation of privacy. I'm sleeping fine tonight.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:47 PM on January 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Navelgazer: Yes, that is correct, the items seized cannot be used in a criminal trial as evidence against that criminal. Anything seized is still subject to forfeiture, though.
posted by wierdo at 8:36 PM on January 23, 2012


The warrantless GPS data was used to find Jones' stash house, which contained $850,000 in cash, 97 kilograms of cocaine, and a kilogram of cocaine base.

Yes, how horrid that the police had to go to a judge and explain their basis for wanting to stick a tracking device on a car. Unbelievable!
posted by rodgerd at 10:36 PM on January 23, 2012


In other surveillance news: DOJ Urges Supreme Court to Halt Warrantless Eavesdropping Challenge
posted by homunculus at 12:18 PM on February 22, 2012


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