United States v. Jones (2012)

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The Supreme Court case which held that the placement and use of an electronic tracking device for 28 days on a suspect’s vehicle through an improperly executed warrant constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. (Read opinion here)

This case involved whether an improperly executed warrant used by the FBI to track a suspect’s vehicle via a GPS device for 28 continuous days constituted a “search” under Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. The Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Scalia and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Sotomayor, held that the electronic tracking device placed on the vehicle at issue, and its resulting use by the Government, met the test for a search under an originalist interpretation of the Fourth Amendment.

In 2004, the defendant in this case, Antoine Jones, came under investigation by the FBI on suspicion of drug trafficking. A joint task force between the FBI and D.C. Police gathered details on Jones through traditional surveillance methods. The information earned was used to obtain a warrant from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to place an electronic tracking device on the vehicle registered to Jones’ wife. Although this warrant provided that the device must be installed within 10 days in D.C., agents nonetheless installed it on the 11th day in Maryland. Once in place, the task force tracked Jones’ movements over the next 28 days, generating over 2,000 pages of data.

Ultimately, the Government brought suit against Jones for certain drug trafficking offenses. Despite a motion by defense council before trial to suppress evidence obtained from the device, the Government was allowed to bring in the majority of the data received from the device at trial. After conviction, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the lower court for admitting evidence obtained from a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Court maintained a historical reading of the Fourth Amendment, noting that “[t]he Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.” Justice Scalia revived the trespass-associated privacy doctrine, emphasizing the language in the Fourth Amendment that extends to a person’s freedom from unreasonable search and seizure beyond merely their person, but also as to their “houses, papers, and effects.”

The Government’s key argument relied upon prior “beeper” cases, in which the Court upheld the legality of electronic tracking devices placed in containers in order to monitor third-parties’ locations. The Court differentiated what is known as the Katz reasonable-expectation-of-privacy test from the common-law trespassory test, holding that the two exist in tandem, not as substitutions for the other. In those “beeper” cases, the defendants accepted the containers and everything therein. Thus, they had no reasonable expectation of privacy in regards to the containers’ contents. The Court concluded that the Fourth Amendment provides at a minimum the protections afforded under it upon its 18th-century adoption, and here, the Government violated those minimum guarantees by commandeering Jones’ property without a warrant. The Court refused to consider the argument that this search was reasonable because the Government failed to raise it with the lower courts.

Justice Sotomayor, in her concurring opinion, agreed in the judgment that the Fourth Amendment protects Jones where the “Government usurped Jones’ property for the purpose of conducting surveillance on him, thereby invading privacy interests long afforded, and undoubtedly entitled to, Fourth Amendment protection.”

Justice Sotomayor wrote separately, however, to emphasize that the reasonable-expectation-of-privacy test will become more and more relevant with technological advances that enable surveillance without physical intrusion, and that the majority’s approach may provide little guidance.

Justice Alito delivered an opinion concurring in judgment, but not reasoning, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan. Here the Court wrote that the majority’s reliance on an 18th-century understanding of “search and seizure” was ill-suited to the digital age; rather, the reasonable-expectation-of-privacy test developed in United States v. Katz should provide the guiding principles for this area of the Court’s jurisprudence.