Wednesday, 13 November 2013 08:45

U.S. v. Antoine Jones: Supreme Court Rules Warrants Needed for GPS Tracking

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The United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling that limits the ability of police to use a GPS device for tracking suspects in criminal cases. The case represents the first test concerning the protection of privacy rights in the digital age.

In 2004, Antoine Jones, the owner and operator of a Washington, D.C., nightclub, was suspected of trafficking in narcotics and became the target of a joint FBI and Metropolitan Police Department task force investigation. Investigative techniques included surveillance of the nightclub, a camera installed over the club's front door, a pen register and wiretap of Jones's cell phone.

Based on information gathered from these sources, the Government made an application to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2005 for a warrant to use an electronic tracking device on a Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicle registered to the wife of Antoine Jones. A warrant was issued and specified that the device should be installed in the District of Columbia within ten days. On the eleventh day, in Maryland, a GPS tracking device was installed on the Jeep while it was parked in a public lot. Law enforcement used the device to track the movements of the vehicle.

The device received signals from several satellites and established the location of the vehicle within 50 to 100 feet, communicating that location to via cell phone to a government computer. More than 2,000 pages of data were transmitted over a period of four weeks.

Ultimately, the Government received an indictment on multiple counts, charging Jones and alleged co-conspirators with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and 50 grams or more of cocaine base.

According to court documents, "before trial, Jones filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained through the GPS device. The District Court granted the motion only in part, suppressing the data obtained while the vehicle was parked in the garage adjoining Jones’s residence. 451F. Supp. 2d 71, 88 (2006). It held the remaining data admissible because '[a} a person travelling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another.’ Ibid. (quoting United States v. Knotts, 460 U. S. 276, 281 (1983)). Jones’s trial in October 2006 produced a hung jury on the conspiracy count."

In March 2007, a grand jury returned another indictment charging Jones and others with the same conspiracy, according to court documents. "The government introduced at trial the same GPS-derived locational data admitted in the first trial, which connected Jones to the alleged conspirators’ stash house that contained $850,000 in cash, 97 kilograms of cocaine, and 1 kilogram of cocaine base. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and the District Court sentenced Jones to life imprisonment. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the decision because of the admission of the evidence obtained by warrantless use of the GPS device which, it said, violated the Fourth Amendment."

The Supreme Court unanimously decided to reject the Government's argument that the long-term surveillance of a suspect using GPS is no different from traditional types of monitoring. While the entire Court agreed that Jones's Fourth Amendment protections had been violated with the attachment of a GPS device to his vehicle, it split 5-4 on the reasoning for the ruling.

Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that it was the attachment of the device that violated the unreasonable search and seizure protections of the Fourth Amendment. According to court documents, he wrote, "“We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search.” The majority found that electronic surveillance may be an unconstitutional invasion of privacy even if it is performed without have to trespass physically on the property of an individual.

Writing for the minority, Justice Samuel Alito stated that the Court should have addressed more clearly advances in wireless devices and innovations instead of deciding a “21st-century surveillance technique” using “18th-century tort law.” In court documents, Alito stated, “The court’s reasoning largely disregards what is really important (the use of a GPS for the purpose of long-term tracking) and instead attaches great significance to something that most would view as relatively minor (attaching to the bottom of a car a small, light object that does not interfere in any way with the car’s operation)... the use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy...For such offenses, society’s expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others would not — and indeed, in the main, simply could not — secretly monitor and catalogue every single movement of an individual’s car for a very long period.”


U.S. v. Antoine Jones, Oral Arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, November 9, 2011

U.S. v. Antoine Jones, U.S. Supreme Court, Opinion of the Court


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