“Big Brother” Reigned In

The United States Supreme Court reigned in "Big Brother" today with its decision in United States v. Jones, holding that the Government must first obtain a search warrant before installing and monitoring a G.P.S. device on a suspects vehicle.

In a day where increased unmanned observation of citizens seems to be an all but accepted way of life with traffic cameras, invasive airport scanners and other similar technology, today's decision by the Supreme Court is a refreshing reminder of the importance of the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court's ruling can best be summarized as follows: The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the "right of the people to be secure in their person's houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." The Government's physical intrusion (installation of a tracking device) on an individual's "effect" (vehicle) for the purposes of obtaining information constitutes a "search." Consequently a search warrant is required prior to the intrusion. (See Your Rights).

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution has long protected citizens from governmental intrusion into their private affairs. Although not as commonly discussed, the Fourth Amendment also stands as a stout protector of private property from governmental interference or intrusion. Justice Scalia, delivering the opinion of the Court, emphasized and reiterated the proud and longstanding tradition that the protection of private property, made possible through the Fourth Amendment, has in our country. He emphasized: "It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case: The Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a 'search' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted." Justice Scalia then quoted the historical explanation by Lord Camden: "Our law holds the property of every man so sacred, that no man can set his foot upon his neighbour's close without his leave; if he does he is a trespasser, though he does no damage at all; if he will tread upon his neighbour's ground, he must justify it by law."

The Government argued that Jones it should not matter that they trespassed on Jone's private effects because he did not have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in the area of the vehicle accessed by the Government agents (its underbody) and in the location of the vehicle on the public roads, and thus, no Fourth Amendment violation took place. They made this argument relying upon two prior cases decided by the Supreme Court where it held that placement of a "beeper" into a container that was subsequently transported by a defendant and tracked by law enforcement did not qualify as a "search." However, the Supreme Court rejected that argument, pointing out that those two cases (United States v. Knotts and United States v. Karo) involved placement of the tracking device on the property with the "then owner's" permission. Consequently, there was no "trespass" against the individual's property as was the case in Jones, where the agents installed the device on his private property, without his nor anyone else permission.

It is also notable that there was considerable debate between the Justices regarding what the proper approach should be for determining whether a "search occurs" in future cases not involving a physical trespass to a person's property. However, that debate is better left for the legal academics and future cases to ferret out. The key to this case is this: When the government physically invades personal property to gather information, a search occurs within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. If no search warrant or exception to the warrant requirement exists at that time, then the search is illegal and all evidence obtained as a result of the illegal search must be suppressed (thrown out of court).

On an interesting side note, none of this would have been an issue had law enforcement did what they were supposed to do in the first place. Law enforcement initially obtained a search warrant to install the GPS unit on Jones' vehicle but did so a day late and a State short. The warrant required the installation of the device in the District of Columbia within 10 days from the date it was issued. Unfortunately, the agents installed the device in the State of Maryland on the 11th day. Consequently, the warrant did not authorize the installation and the Court had to analyze the case as if no warrant had been issued at all. This is a classic example of had law enforcement done their job correctly in the first place, we wouldn't even be talking about this.