Most experienced federal criminal defense attorneys deal with their fair share of illegal vehicle searches and seizures. Near the United States-Mexico border, most of these searches and seizures come in the form of Border Patrol agents stopping vehicles and seizing drugs and other property inside without justification. These searches violate the Fourth Amendment and a good attorney can often get the evidence thrown out in court. However, what if the one that violates the Fourth Amendment is your car’s GPS system? The Supreme Court will have to decide after it hears arguments on United States v. Jones November 8th.
The main issues in United States v. Jones are whether the Constitution permits police officers to install a tracking device in someone’s car without first getting a warrant or the car owner’s permission, and whether police can legally follow a car’s location through the tracking device. In Jones, the facts are as follows: in 2004, a Safe Streets Task Force of the FBI and the Metropolitan Police Department began investigating Antoine Jones, owner of a Washington, D.C. nightclub, for cocaine trafficking. After trying several different surveillance techniques, the agents got a warrant from a federal judge authorizing them to covertly install a GPS system on Jones’s car. The warrant authorized the agents to install the GPS system within 10 days and only within the D.C. area, but the agents waited 11 days and did not install it until Jones’s car was parked in a public parking lot in Maryland.
The GPS system gave accurate information on the car’s whereabouts within 50 to 100 feet and generated information only when the car was moving. The GPS system provided data about the car’s location, but not about the car’s driver or any of its passengers. Using the GPS system and other surveillance information, agents were able to track Jones to a Fort Washington stash house. After obtaining warrants, they uncovered $70,000 from Jones’s car and large amounts of cocaine, firearms, and other drug-related goods. Jones was charged by a federal grand jury with conspiring to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and 50 grams or more of cocaine base, in violation of federal law. Jones sought to suppress evidence obtained through the GPS system.
It’s easy to say that any tracking system installed in someone else’s car without their knowledge is bad, but the facts show that circumstances are a little more muddled. Police used other (supposedly legal) methods of obtaining information, and did get a warrant before installing the system (even if they basically ignored its restrictions). On the other hand, for police to go to the act of installing a device on your vehicle seems like a great intrusion — too great.
The Supreme Court has been tolerant of tracking devices in the past, namely in United States v. Karo, where it stated that a beeper in a can did not constitute a search and seizure. However, in Karo the can was accepted knowingly and brought into the house, while the agents installed the GPS system without Jones ever being aware. It would be nice for the Supreme Court to take a hard line against tracking devices, in a pushback against ever-eroding privacy standards. However, this Supreme Court over the past several years has been far too willing to erode personal liberties in the face of security.