Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear argument in the case of United States v. Jones. At stake is the right of individuals to be free from warrantless government tracking of their vehicle’s location through GPS technology.
District of Columbia police suspected Antoine Jones, a nightclub owner, of being involved in cocaine distribution. The warrant obtained by prosecutors allowed police to place a GPS tracking device on Jones’s vehicle while it was in the District of Columbia and for ten days only. Instead, D.C. authorities placed the GPS device on Mr. Jones’s car while it was located in Maryland and tracked Mr. Jones’s car for a month, in contravention of the warrant. The device recorded Jones’s vehicles movements continuously, 24-hours a day. Using the evidence gathered with the GPS device, authorities charged Mr. Jones with conspiracy to sell cocaine.
At his trial, Jones moved to suppress the GPS evidence as an unreasonable search and invasion of his privacy in contravention of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court refused to suppress the evidence and he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the police violated Jones’s reasonable expectation of privacy by putting the device on his car without a valid court order.
The last relevant Supreme Court case, United States v. Knotts, allowed the use of beepers that send a signal to the police from a suspect’s vehicle for several hours only. The use of GPS devices for round-the-clock surveillance over a much longer period of time raises much greater concerns.
If the Supreme Court finds for the government in this case, it could pave the way for the use of technologically advanced tracking of individuals in ways that increasingly invade an individual’s private life.