A Victory for Privacy OR A Loss for Law Enforcement?
On Tuesday, January 23, the Supreme Court decided United States v. Jones, a case that set the tone for how the fundamental right to privacy will be protected in this digital age.
In 2004, the Government suspected that Antoine Jones, a former owner of Levels D.C. nightclub, was involved in drug trafficking. The Government had obtained permission to attach a GPS tracker to Jones’s Jeep in Washington, D.C. within 10 days. Instead, the Government attached the device on the 11th day and in Maryland.
The Government obtained information that led to an indictment charging Jones with conspiracy to distribute and posses with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and 50 grams of cocaine base.
The Court looked at whether the GPS device, monitoring Jones’ car, was a search or seizure within the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures . . .”
The Supreme Court unanimously held that the installation of the GPS device on Jones’ vehicle was a search protected within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The Court distinguished a GPS tracker as being more intrusive that ordinary public surveillance methods. Justices Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, and Sotomayor joined in the majority opinion, although Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion. Alito filed another concurring opinion in which Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan joined.
The difference between the Justices’ opinions is the approach used to get to the conclusion. Scalia found that the GPS device on a vehicle is a search protected within the meaning of the history of the Fourth Amendment, while Alito used a “reasonableness test” and argued that Jones’s reasonable expectations of privacy were violated.
This decision shifts power away from law enforcement officials and toward the privacy rights of those accused. Of course, this case’s outcome is not without its mixed reviews. Fox News called the decision a “rare defeat for law enforcement.” The Supreme Court was “rein[ing] in the police” according to the Wall Street Journal. Senator Patrick Leahy called the decision “a victory for privacy rights and for civil liberties in the digital age.”
The case is intriguing because the GPS tracker not only revealed evidence about Jones’s drug trafficking, but also about defects in the D.C. government’s administration of liquor licenses. Jones had two felony drug convictions when he applied for his Washington D.C. club liquor licenses, but received the licenses because D.C. did not look into his records from Virginia and Maryland.
As more advanced tracking technology is developed, and people’s electronic trails report more information about their habits, this decision will serve as guidance for law enforcement officials to be careful that their actions do not breach the Fourth Amendment protections, despite how egregious the accused actions may be.