In a landmark decision in United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court looked at whether police can attach a GPS unit to a suspect’s car without a warrant. Antoine Jones was a nightclub owner in Washington D.C. and was suspected of drug trafficking. The FBI and the D.C. Police investigation included tapping the phone of Mr. Brown, and monitoring his nightclub. This investigation led to the authorities obtaining a warrant to place a GPS unit on Mr. Brown’s car, which was registered to his wife. However, the warrant required the GPS unit to be attached within ten days. It wasn’t attached until the 11th day, making it a warrantless attachment. The authorities then used this GPS unit to gather data over the course of the next four weeks. The information they obtained through the GPS was integral to indicting and convicting Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown then appealed his decision, claiming a violation of his constitutional rights.
The fourth amendment states, in relevant part, “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” In order to tell when and where a violation has occurred, the Supreme Court has adopted the “reasonable expectation of privacy test”, which was explained in a previous case written by former Justice Harlan. He stated that a violation occurs when government officers violate a person’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.” A reasonable expectation of privacy in a thing is normally understood as someone’s home, or private space. A car on public street presented a difficult question. This gave the District Court and Appeals Courts great pause, as they had difficulty finding that anyone had a reasonable expectation of privacy while driving on public roads. However, the Supreme Court disagreed, finding that a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in their vehicle. Considering the way we can sometimes live out of our cars, it seems the Supreme Court reflected a common view of the privacy we expect while in our cars.
In this case, the Court found that Mr. Brown did have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his vehicle. Of great concern to the Court was that the Government was essentially arguing that they could place a GPS unit on any car they want. In fact, the Government told the Supreme Court justices during oral argument that they could attach GPS units to their car without a warrant and track their comings and goings.
In striking down the conviction, the Court unanimously agreed that such conduct by the Government was a violation of Mr. Brown’s constitutional rights. How would you feel if the Government attached a GPS unit without a warrant to your car? Let us know in the comments section below. To read the full decision, click here.