GPS Tracking Requires Warrants

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Most people know that the Fourth Amendment offers protection against unlawful searches and seizures by police. This basic protection may seem simple enough at first glance, but the contours of the doctrine have become murky as new technologies emerge. The U.S. Supreme Court sought to offer some guidance in its recent decision in United States v. Jones, in which it unanimously held that attaching a Global-Positioning-System (GPS) device to a motor vehicle and using the device to track its movements constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.

Facts of Jones

Antoine Jones and his associate, Lawrence Maynard, owned a nightclub in Washington, D.C. In 2004, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local police began to investigate Jones and Maynard as possible kingpins in a local narcotics smuggling ring. Authorities asked for and received a search warrant to place a GPS device on a Jeep Grand Cherokee registered to Jones' wife. The warrant specified that authorities were allowed to place the device on the car within ten days and while the vehicle was in Washington, D.C. Police did not place the device on Jones' car, however, until 11 days after the warrant was issued and did so in Maryland. Police tracked the Jeep's movements for 28 days. Jones' movements eventually led police and FBI agents to a stash house, where they discovered $1 million in cash and almost a kilogram of cocaine.

Jones was subsequently charged with drug trafficking and conspiracy. At trial, the District Court did not allow the admission of data collected from the GPS device while it was parked at Jones' home, but did allow the admission of data collected while the Jeep was on the road, reasoning that Jones had no expectation of privacy when driving on a public street. Jones was convicted, but his conviction was overturned by the Circuit Court, which ruled that the admission of the GPS data collected without a warrant violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

The Court's Decision

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the installation of the GPS device on Jones' Jeep and its use to track the vehicles movements constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, a warrant was needed. Beyond this basic point, the reasoning of the Court's decision was fractured.

Jones presented three primary arguments: first, that the installation of the device constituted a search; second, that tracking Jones - by any technological means - was a search; and third, that tracking Jones for a long period of time constituted a search. The five justice majority concluded that use of the device was a search under the Fourth Amendment because police not only installed it, but also used it to track his location. The combination of these factors is what renders the action a search, not either of them alone. In fact, no justice believed that mere installation of the device itself constituted a Fourth Amendment search.

Significance of the Court's Decision

The long-term significance of the Court's decision in Jones remains to be seen. The grounds for the Court's decision are narrow and not necessarily as pro-defendant as one would initially think. In the short term, however, police departments are likely to avoid the installation of GPS devices without a warrant to avoid constitutional challenges. The decision also perhaps marks the beginning of a re-examination and reformulation of Fourth Amendment principles in light of the use of emerging technologies.

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