Thursday, October 27, 2011
Supreme Court Set to Hear Arguments on GPS Tracking Devices in United States v. Jones
Photo courtesy of Sho Hashimoto on Flickr
On November 8th, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in what the New York Times has described as, “the most important Fourth Amendment case in a decade.” United States v. Jones is on appeal from the D.C. Circuit, and considers the issue of whether law enforcement can install and subsequently monitor a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car without first obtaining a warrant. The Supreme Court was inclined to grant certiorari following a decision by the D.C. Circuit that the police violated defendant Jones’s Fourth Amendment rights, a clear split from other circuit courts which have heard the issue.
The case is essentially the next step in a pair of decisions handed down by the Court in 1983 and 1984, United States v. Knotts and United States v. Karo, respectively. In Knotts and Karo the Supreme Court ruled that monitoring a beeper tracking device attached to a suspect’s car was not a Fourth Amendment violation. The Court’s decision stemmed from the fact that one could not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their public movements, because the police could have essentially conducted the same surveillance without the aid of the tracking device. Defendant’s which have attempted to distinguish themselves from the Knotts and Karo decisions have focused on dicta in Knotts, explaining that the issue could be reconsidered when twenty-four hour surveillance encompassing dragnet-type law enforcement was being conducted. The circuit courts which considered the GPS issue prior to the D.C. Circuit all found that law enforcement did not use GPS tracking devices in a volume to be distinguished based on the language in Knotts.
In the D.C. case, the circuit court took an alternate approach. Instead of considering the amount of people being investigated with GPS tracking devices, the court determined that the Knotts court was actually referring to the length of the surveillance. The court found that the vast technological differences between GPS and beepers enabled the police to conduct surveillance for a much longer period of time and in greater detail. Beepers require the police to follow a suspect’s car and only give the relative distance that the police are from the suspect. GPS on the other hand, is able to map a suspect’s movement without any police involvement. The D.C. Circuit relied on a mosaic theory, essentially finding that the sum of the information provided by GPS was greater than the amount of information the suspect intended to convey through his public movements.
Despite the rulings in Knotts and Karo, the Supreme Court should distinguish GPS technology from the beeper technology used in those cases. Without a warrant, police are free to conduct GPS surveillance on whomever they please, without making any showing of suspicion. In beeper technology cases, law enforcement were still limited as to how they could conduct surveillance. Beepers required police to still be an active part of the investigation because they had to follow the electronic beeps emitted by the device. Besides the initial investigation, police can monitor GPS passively. This, combined with the falling cost of GPS, means that police can monitor a greater number of people than traditional or beeper technology would allow, going beyond the capabilities of surveillance the public reasonably expects.
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