The Use of GPS Tracking Devices Without a Warrant is an Upcoming Issue Before the U.S. Supreme Court

The Use of GPS Tracking Devices Without a Warrant is an Upcoming Issue Before the U.S. Supreme Court

Looking ahead at the next U.S. Supreme Court season, one important issue the Court will have to deliberate is whether law enforcement officers need a warrant for the use of a GPS tracking device on a suspect. This is the case of Antoine Jones, a suspected drug trafficker in Washington, D.C. In order to try to tie Jones to a drug house in Maryland, FBI Agents and local law enforcement installed a GPS tracking device on the car registered to Jones' wife. Officers obtained a warrant that permitted a 10-day period of surveillance, but they installed the tracker after the 10 days had expired. Nevertheless, over the next month, law enforcement kept track of every movement of the Jeep, including times when Jones' wife and kids were traveling. Once they tied Jones to the drug house in Maryland, law enforcement was able to execute search warrants for the house and other property. They found large amounts of powder and crack cocaine, and Jones was convicted of conspiring to sell drugs and sentenced to life in prison.

Jones later appealed arguing that the prolonged use of the GPS tracking device without a warrant constituted an illegal search. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Jones' favor, stating that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy and thus was entitled to Fourth Amendment protection. The Court's reasoning was that Jones had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements as a whole over that month, and that his actions were not "exposed" to the public (which would negate the need for a warrant). The Court stated this,
"First, unlike one's movements during a single journey, the whole of one's movements over the course of a month is not actually exposed to the public because the likelihood anyone will observe all those movements is effectively nil. Second, the whole of one's movements is not constructively even though each movement is exposed, because that whole reveals more -- sometimes a great deal more -- than does the sum of its parts."

The government argues that based on U.S. v. Knotts, the installation of the GPS tracker did not require a warrant. Knotts held that officers did not need a warrant to install a beeper tracking device to a barrel of chloroform being transported in order to manufacture illegal drugs. The government argues that the use of a beeper and the use of a more technologically advanced GPS tracking device is one in the same.

Jones' attorney, Stephen Leckar argues, however, that Knotts is different from this case because law enforcement in Knotts had to remain close to the beeper in order for it to work. Therefore, they were already tracking the chloroform barrel themselves; the beeper just "augmented their senses." The GPS tracking device, he says, completely supplants the officers' senses, making the two cases different.

What both sides agree on is that this case may prove to be monumental to the status of the Fourth Amendment. Critics worry that a favorable ruling for Jones would open up many avenues of warrantless surveillance, stomping on the privacy rights of citizens. Many, including John Wesley Hall (a criminal defense attorney in Arkansas), do not believe the government is merely chipping away at the Fourth Amendment; rather, it is being "blasted away."

Continue to check back for updates on this and other upcoming issues in the Supreme Court.

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