Supreme Court Rules Police Need a Warrant to Track Your Car

10-1259 United States v. Jones (01/23/2012)

In a major step toward defending constitutional rights and due process in an age of high-tech surveillance, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found that police require a search warrant to place a tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle.

In doing so, the high court overturned the conviction of Washington, D.C nightclub owner Antoine Jones on charges of conspiracy to sell drugs. To convict Jones, prosecutors used as evidence information from a GPS tracker that had been attached to Jones’ SUV. Although the Washington, D.C. police had obtained a search warrant for the device, officers did not execute the warrant until the day after it had expired. They also placed the device on the vehicle when it was in Maryland, outside the D.C. jurisdiction of the warrant. Jones’ attorneys appealed his conviction to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Fourth Amendment grounds against illegal search and seizure. Prosecutors, supported by the Obama administration, argued that the search warrant, however improperly executed, was unnecessary to begin with because GPS tracking was not a search as defined by the Bill of Rights. The Appeals Court disagreed and the Supreme Court today upheld the ruling.

The decision will stand as a watershed moment in the application of Fourth Amendment guarantees in an era where police–from local precincts up to the FBI–have a bevy of intrusive electronic tools at their disposal. Although the decision pertained to electronic surveillance, the Opinion of the Court, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, notably rested on brick-and-mortar aspects, primarily that police trespassed on private property to execute the warrant.

Still, by the court’s own admission, the ruling doesn’t cover the use of technologies that do not require law enforcement to set foot or otherwise tamper with a suspect’s property. These can range from location tracking via automatic highway toll payment systems to the use of thermal and infrared cameras, which can “see” in the dark, and sophisticated radio imaging devices, which, although still in prototype, have the potential to see through walls.

However, the Supreme Court, as it often does, used this case as an opportunity to set up a framework for future cases that might tackle these greater issues. It chose to say that the “no reasonable expectation of privacy” test that has been used in other Fourth Amendment cases, including Katz v. United States, to allow the use information obtained from a suspect’s behavior in public–as well as the use of information if it has been transferred to a third party–did not apply in this case. Even so, the opinion seemed to go out of its way to note that “expectation of privacy” claim was intended to augment, not diminish or replace, citizens’ rights against search and seizure as laid down in the Fourth Amendment. It subtly reclaims “expectation of privacy” as touchstone for defendants and makes it less of an escape clause for government snooping.

This could have ramifications should a case involving a warrantless seizure of electronic data from cloud-based third-party storage services, such as Carbonite and Dropbox, come before the Supreme Court. Here again, then, the opinion chose to quote from Katz, reminding us that “the Fourth Amendment protects people, not places.”