Efrain Alvarado III
United States v. Jones (2012) and Illegal Use of Tracking Devices
Antoine Jones, a nightclub owner located in Washington D.C., was suspected by the local police and FBI as being a cocaine trafficker. His nightclub was under visual surveillance with a camera near the establishment; law enforcement also had his phones wiretapped and used a device to record the numbers of anyone calling Jones or receiving a call from him (these measures required a warrant which police did obtain). They also got a warrant authorizing the covert installation of a GPS device on a Jeep owned by Jones’ wife that he was known to use, but the warrant required that the device be installed in D.C. within a 10 day period. Officers installed the device a day after the 10 day timeline without receiving an additional warrant, and it was installed in Maryland rather than D.C. as the expired warrant had stated. After over a month of collecting data, police determined that a shipment of cocaine was on its way to Jones. On October 24 police executed search warrants at multiple locations and found drug paraphernalia (including cocaine), weapons, and cash, and charged Jones with multiple crimes
The original trial resulted in Jones being acquitted on some charges, while the jury remained deadlocked on others. As a result, the state indicted Jones on a new charge of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. In this trial, despite protestations from Jones’ legal team, the information collected on the illegally installed GPS device was admitted as evidence. Jones was subsequently convicted and sentenced to life in prison, also having to forfeit drug proceed which amounted to $1 million. Once the case reached the Court of Appeals in D.C., the conviction was reversed based on the fact that the GPS device (which was used without a warrant) violated the search and seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment. The United States then requested that the Supreme Court review the case. Justice Scalia delivered the majority opinion and the Supreme Court that police intruding in a constitutionally protected area (in this case, Jones’ car) constitutes a Fourth Amendment violation. They used a combination of the Harlan and Katz standards to determine if Jones had an actual expectation of privacy and if society was prepared to recognize this expectation as reasonable. To Scalia, if the Government physically invades personal property to gather information, an unreasonable search occurs.
As Justice Alito’s concurrence (joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan) points out, Scalia’s ruling may have not taken into account the nuance associated with GPS technology as he focused more on physical intrusion than the illegal gathering of data also seen in the case. As Alito pointed out, technologies that permit the monitoring of people’s movements are now much more abundant than they were back when this case began in 2005; as a result, existing Fourth Amendment doctrine ought to be applied accordingly to newer forms of technology. Long-term GPS monitoring is a troubling search method that encourages civil liberties violations unbeknownst to those being tracked, and the Court ought to recognize the danger in allowing law enforcement free reign to employ such methods without requiring specific case-by-case warrants. The decision of this case ultimately seems correct, although the reasoning perhaps will not stand the test of time due to the rapid advancement of technology.
Epstein, L., & Walker, T. G. (2017). Constitutional Law for a Changing America (9th ed.). Washington, DC: Sage.