-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger
The case is United States v. Jones which concerns FBI agents who planted a GPS tracking device on Jones’ car and monitored the car’s position every ten seconds for an entire month, without a warrant. A jury found Jones, and co-defendant Maynard, guilty of a single count of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine and 50 or more grams of cocaine base.
Jones appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia arguing that the district court erred in admitting evidence gained via the warrantless use of the GPS tracking device. The Appeals Court reversed Jones’ conviction, and the government’s petition for an en banc hearing was denied.
In a similar case, United States v. Knotts, a less sophisticated tracking device, a “beeper,” was installed in a container of chloroform to be used in the manufacture of illicit drugs and was used by police to track the route of the container. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, held that:
A person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements.
In a footnote, the Court did not pass on the issue of the warrantless installation of the beeper in the chloroform container.
However, the DC Appeals Court found that Knotts was not controlling, noting that in the Knotts decision, the Supreme Court distinguished the “limited use which the government made of the [beeper] signals”. The Appeals Court further stated:
Most important for the present case, the Court specifically reserved the question whether a warrant would be required in a case involving twenty-four hour surveillance, stating
if such dragnet-type law enforcement practices as respondent envisions should eventually occur, there will be time enough then to determine whether different constitutional principles may be applicable.
In granting certiorari for United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court directed the parties to brief and argue the following question:
Whether the government violated respondent’s Fourth Amendment rights by installing the GPS tracking device on his vehicle without a valid warrant and without his consent.
The installation of the tracking device is an area not covered by Knotts decision, and could suggest that some Justices are concerned over this issue. The installation process may constitute a seizure, however brief. The installation could also violate the Fourth Amendment by interfering with the defendant’s private property.