U.S. vs Jones

The official decision can be found here.

In the course about drug trafficking investigation DC police obtained a warrant to install a GPS tracking device on the car of Antoine Jones.  Unfortunately they installed it back in Maryland outside the Lawrence jurisdiction and after the warrant had expired.   So the Supreme Court was confronted with the question. Is the installation of a GPS tracking device on a car to monitor the public movement attack a violation of the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures when it’s done without a valid search warrant?

The decision US v Jones was unanimous appropriate. A pro privacy decision up and down the line.  Every justice on the Supreme Court agreed that the government should not be able to collect information about people using GPS devices attached to cars for a long period.  Justice Scalia’s majority opinion decided this case on fairly narrow grounds reminding us that the fundamental link between the fourth amendment and rights and property is still valid and so even without having to decide the thorny questions now what reasonable expectation of privacy Jones might have had in the publicity of his movements, the installation of the device, the invasion of his property was in itself a 4th amendment violation.

Tthat’s a return in their minds to the original meaning of the Fourth Amendment which was essentially based on property.  That’s important different because the 1967 case decision which has been the lodestar decision was based on reasonable expectations of privacy.  The other four justices would have insisted on using that case property rights are important here because that’s the real original meaning the fourth amendment.  It’s very difficult of course to apply property rights present circumstances but this is a step in the right direction.

That narrow decision avoids a lot of complicated questions that are bound to come up though in the near future there are lots of ways to monitor someone without physically invading their property.  You could imagine high-powered spy satellites, tiny drone cameras or the most popular method now in use by police, monitoring cell phone signals. Wwitch anyone who has used Google Maps on a mobile device knows it’s pretty precise tracking of someone’s movements both in public and in private.

One of more interesting opinions was a concurrence delivered by a justice who concurred in the in the majority’s opinion that is the property rights basis which is important but she also said that the court might want to consider what’s known as a third-party doc.  That’s the idea that anybody who shares information with anyone gives up ther 4th amendment interests in it.

Justice Alito who wrote the concurrence that disagreed with majority holding, he mused about this during oral argument, but it was just that he wants to get away from the retrograde third-party doctine,  it was very interesting to see that from her.

This is hugely important when it comes to things like your Internet activity.  You know, your Internet Service Provider and your mobile phone provider has a record in some sense of every website you visit and what you’re doing online.  And so the question is, under the existing third-party doctine, even if it may have statutory protection, is their constitutional protection for that kind of information and there is a line of supreme court cases saying that once you’ve exposed it to your internet provider, the phone company or some other person, even if they swear to keep it private, even if they’re contractually bound to keep it private, you waived your constitutional privacy interest and they very insightfully point out that given the realities of how technology operates in the 21st century, if we apply that without restriction it would really fundamentally undermine power most vital privacy interests.

Tthird party doctrine was wrong when it was founded and it grows more wrong with each passing year very interesting year. I would suggest to the court that maybe they want to reconsider that retrograde doctrine.

The holding is relatively narrow because it relies on the specific factual circumstances attachment of a GPS device. Scalia’s majority opinion is interesting because it doesn’t define very clearly what kind of property invasion results in a fourth amendment search. It comes many pages later when he suggests that it’s it’s an attachment of a device to a jeep in this case.

Another Justice comes in later , in language it’s legally important, an invasion of personal property is what causes Fourth Amendment search to happen.  That’s new and that’s an important idea because that doctrine, that language, may be applied to cell phones, may be applied to other physical objects we carry with us away from our homes, away from the curtilage around our homes, that’s an important expansion of what fourth amendment is meant to protect, the tangible goods we carry and I think particularly information devices.

In a way we’ve answered the specific question at issue in this case, but not the most important question.  Because, already it seems clear that out while GPS tracking devices are very popular with police, even more pervasive and even more popular now and certainly in the future are going to be other methods that don’t involve physical invasion.  Again it seems obvious in the limited information we have that use of cell phones to track targets wherever they might go is becoming just incredibly pervasive and incredibly popular in law enforcement.

Other similar forms of noninvasive monitoring are going to be the way forward for law enforcement future.  So the question is now inevitable I think and we’ve got good basis for a privacy protected decision with at least five justices on the court.  How does the Fourth Amendment protected that?  How’s the Fourth Amendment protect us and all that can be exposed from knowing where we go, who we meet with everyday, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  Is that information so protected that requires a warrant?  Or can the government physically monitor everyone’s location all day, all the tim,e for no reason at all?

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