Supreme Court Holds that Warrantless “Trespass” in Placement of GPS Device on Vehicle Constitutes an Unreasonable Search Violative of the Fourth Amendment

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The Chinese Year of the Dragon started with a bang as the Supreme Court issued a much anticipated ruling in this Fourth Amendment case that was neither brave nor innovative. In United States v. Antoine Jones the Court chose to affirm the district and circuit courts’ Fourth Amendment ruling on extremely narrow grounds. Left for another day is the question of the durational limits of covert electronic law enforcement monitoring of a criminal suspect’s public movements. Fourth Amendment connoisseurs who were expecting a blockbuster decision defining the breadth of a person’s privacy rights in the “digital age” must be disappointed.

Essentially, the five member plurality, consisting of Scalia (writing for the majority), Thomas, Roberts, and Kennedy, with Sotomayor concurring, held that the warrantless placement of a GPS device on a suspect’s vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment in that the suspect Jones’ right of privacy was violated when the federal agent’s “trespassed” by attaching the GPS device to his vehicle in an attempt to gather information. The majority rejected an analysis of the Fourth Amendment claim under the “reasonable-expectations-of-privacy” test set forth in Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 351 (1967) as unnecessary when the Government here has “engage[d] in physical intrusion of a constitutionally protected area in order to obtain information,” quoting from the concurring opinion in Katz.

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