Placement of a GPS Device On a Vehicle Is an Unconstitutional Search Under the Fourth Amendment

As police surveillance techniques become more sophisticated due to technological advances courts will be asked how this squares with the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches.

In U.S. v. Jones the U.S. Supreme Court was asked whether the placement of a global positioning device on a person’s car is a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The Court ruled it was a search.

In 2004, the government obtained a search warrant to place a global positioning device on Defendant Jones’s car. The warrant allowed for the device to be placed within 10 days, but the police installed the device after the permitted time period. The Government then retrieved information from the device for 28 days, leading to a drug distribution conspiracy charge for Jones. The GPS device produced more than 2,000 pages of data.

The District Court suppressed the evidence obtained from the GPS while the Jones’s car was parked at his home, but ruled that remaining evidence was admissible because Jones would have no reasonable expectation of privacy while on public streets. The D.C. Circuit Court reversed, holding that admission of the GPS evidence obtained without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment.

The question for the Supreme Court on appeal was whether the attachment of a GPS device to a vehicle constitutes a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches.” A vehicle is considered to be an “effect.” When the government has made an unlicensed physical intrusion upon these areas a search has occurred. Evidence obtained in violation of the Constitution may not be admitted into evidence at trial.

The Court based its analysis on the principle that an unwelcome physical trespass onto protected property is a search, a so-called property-based approach rooted in common law tradition.

The Government argued that a more modern rule, called the Katz test, should be used in this case. The Katz test asks whether the Government violated a reasonable expectation of privacy, a rule that purports to protect people, not places.

The majority opinion in the case, written by Justice Scalia, stated that the property-based approach need not replace the Katz test, just that the result in this case is better reached with the property-based approach. A situation involving no physical trespass would still be subject to the Katz test.

The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the D.C. Circuit Court.

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