Antoine Jones is a convicted drug dealer. His conviction rests, however, on the government’s decision to attach a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking device to his car and to use the device to follow his every movement for over a month. Through this tracking, they developed a clear understanding of the pattern of Jones’ travels and, eventually, identified the stash house where he was hiding the drugs.
The issue before the courts isn’t whether or not Jones can be tracked, but rather whether or not the government needs to get a search warrant from a judge before it puts a GPS device on his car for an extended period of time. To get a warrant the government must go before a neutral magistrate and show the magistrate facts that give it “probable cause” to think that a crime is being committed, or that evidence of a crime will be found.
In this case the government did not get a warrant. [Complexity alert: Actually, it got a warrant, but then it let the warrant lapse – so the entire case is being treated like no warrant was issued.]
But the government says that a warrant isn’t necessary. Back in 1983, in a case called United States v. Knotts, the Supreme Court looked at the question of whether or not the police needed a warrant to put a radio beeper on a car. The Court said that they didn’t, and the reasoning tells you something about the Fourth Amendment law in America. Under current doctrine, the Fourth Amendment only protects things in which we have a reasonable expectation of privacy. But, according to the Supreme Court, you don’t have an expectation of privacy in your car travels. After all, when you drive a car on the streets you are exposing your travels to the public – anyone can follow you and you have no grounds for complaint. So, the Court reasoned, if the police could tail you in a car and follow you with their eyes, without violating the Fourth Amendment, they could, likewise follow you with a radio beeper.
According to the government, Knotts should force the court to reach the same decision in the Jones case. A GPS tracking device is just a bigger and better radio beeper.
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit disagreed. In their ruling (back then the case was known as United States v. Maynard – Jones’ co-defendant), the court said that the collection of geo-location data over an extended period of time allowed the government to create a “mosaic” of Jones’ life in a way that simply following a car for a single trip could not. Because, in practice, the police could not actually follow Jones 24/7 for over a month, the use of a GPS changed the privacy calculus. Jones actually could, reasonably, expect that his month-long travels would remain private. And so, he had an expectation of privacy and the Fourth Amendment required the police to get a warrant before putting the GPS device on his car.
The government asked the Supreme Court to review the case. The Court has agreed and the matter will be heard sometime in early 2012. A decision is expected before the end of June 2012. John Wesley Hall, a Fourth Amendment expert, says it will be the “most important privacy case” in 45 years. It certainly bears watching.