In 2005, police raided the home of nightclub owner Antoine Jones and found almost 100 kilograms of cocaine and $850,000 in cash. A GPS tracker placed on Jones’ Jeep Grand Cherokee aided the search. But there was one problem. The tracker was attached to Jones’ car without a valid warrant, and the Supreme Court unanimously ruled this violated the Constitution.
United States v. Jones, which was decided in January of 2012, was a win for privacy advocates in the digital age. Even though law enforcement never went inside Jones’ car, the case held that the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches still applies to new technology like global positioning devices. Police were able to monitor Jones’ every movement along public streets for 28 days with the GPS, which communicated over 2,000 pages of data regarding his location to a government computer.
Jones was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to sell cocaine, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the ruling. The Supreme Court affirmed that decision in a 9-0 ruling, with Justice Scalia writing the majority opinion.
“It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case,” Scalia wrote. “The Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information.” Scalia added that since the device was placed on private property, such an intrusion constitutes a search under the Fourth amendment.
It is true that police can freely examine the outside of a car on public streets, since the exterior of a vehicle is “thrust into the public eye.” Yet even though the GPS was attached to the car’s exterior, Scalia held that the long-term tracking operation crossed a line. The police did much more than simply conduct a visual inspection of the car; by hooking up a GPS to the Jeep, Scalia concluded that police “encroached on a protected area.”
Although the ruling was unanimous, the justices were split 5-4 over the reasoning. The four justices in the minority thought the GPS not only trespassed on Jones’ private property, but also violated his privacy rights. In Justice Alito’s concurring opinion, he argued that the majority was trying to apply 18th century legal concepts to 21st century surveillance technology. In his view, the majority overlooked the important question of whether or not Jones had a reasonable expectation of privacy.
In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Sotomayor seemed to anticipate the current NSA debate as she expressed concerns about big-brother government surveillance. “Awareness that the Government may be watching chills associational and expressive freedoms,” she wrote. “And the Government’s unrestrained power to assemble data that reveal private aspects of identity is susceptible to abuse.”
Sotomayor also added that it might be necessary to reconsider the notion that individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy for the information they voluntarily disclose to third parties. “People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers; the URLs that they visit and the e-mail addresses with which they correspond to their Internet service providers; and the books, groceries and medications they purchase to online retailers,” she wrote. “I, for one, doubt that people would accept without complaint the warrantless disclosure to the government of a list of every Web site they had visited in the last week, or month, or year.”
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