Supreme Court Grants Cert In GPS Tracking Case

-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.

H/T: Orin Kerr, Jennifer Granick,

26 thoughts on “Supreme Court Grants Cert In GPS Tracking Case”

  1. “A person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements.”

    So this tracker was installed WHILE he was traveling on public thoroughfares!?!?

    Can’t even begin to articulate my disgust with this police state.

  2. lottakatz
    1, July 2, 2011 at 9:30 am
    The SCOTUS has not been too friendly on questions of privacy of late. That the DC Court of Appeals decision was not simply allowed to stand and the writ of certiorari denied does not give me a good feeling here.
    That’s exactly my concern here.

    I wonder which of the current justices are really able to understand the technological leap that has happened with these devices. I assume that the “beeper” in Knotts was similar to a wildlife tracking collar – it simply emitted a signal, and officers would have to follow it and triangulate its position “manually” to get useful information from it. The current systems that can locate themselves via GPS and then transmit their location constantly are very different. They can be deployed in huge numbers and the data can be gathered and processed with very little human intervention. I’m sorry to make a grazing blow across Goodwin’s Law, but the Stasi could only have dreamed of such a system!

    Over the holiday weekend, I watched a fair amount of Revolutionary War programming on PBS and cable. This has me wondering – if the British could have tracked all the Founders so easily, would the Revolution have been possible?

  3. The question seems to be is the GPS device equivalent enough to being followed with good old fashion police surveillance to be constitutional. If the device is attached to the exterior of the vehicle while it is parked in a public place and then tracked with technology rather than with the eyes of a cop, can there be an effective challenge?

  4. anon :

    I know very little about the law, what do you believe Brandeis’ position on (the commerce clause) that would be?

    I am certainly not an expert on the opinions of Justice Brandeis, but I’ll respond as follows , inviting my fellow bloggers to help me out:

    Louis Dembitz Brandeis ,November 13, 1856 – October 5, 1941) was an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916 to 1939.

    First, think about this time in American history when he served on the Supreme Court. He has been referred to as the People’s Lawyer, against big corporations and monopolies in his writings. He was a strong supporter of citizen’s individual rights and against the government’s invasion into that area. He was for a free market and fair competition. I believe he would resist the use of the “commerce clause” to expand it’s power. He was for the little man and before taking the bench, putting his money where his mouth was, by representing clients pro bono to further a cause or to protest an injustice. I really admire his courage and intellect.

  5. “WASHINGTON — Democrats and liberals have a nightmare vision of the Supreme Court’s future: President Barack Obama is defeated for re-election next year and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at 78 the oldest justice, soon finds her health will not allow her to continue on the bench.

    The new Republican president appoints Ginsburg’s successor, cementing conservative domination of the court, and soon the justices roll back decisions in favor of abortion rights and affirmative action.”

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