What the Scotus Decision in United States v. Jones Regarding GPS Surveillance Means to You

By: Bryan L. Ciyou, Esq.

What the Scotus Decision in United States v. Jones Regarding GPS Surveillance Mean to YouIn this blog post, and consistent with the educational objectives of our site, I distill the essence of the United States Supreme Court’s January 23, 2012 decision in United States v. Jones. This case involves the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens (and some non-citizens) from government seizure of their property; it provides, in pertinent part, that “[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.”

This provision of the U.S. Constitution applies to individuals in the various states by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A state can have a stricter state constitutional provision and provide more protection against government searches and seizures, but a state constitution cannot provide less and allow law enforcement more rights to search and seize property it covers.

In addition, as an important learning point, the Fourth Amendment or state constitutional counter-parts do not apply between individuals. The search and seizure doctrine comes into play when the state or federal government wants to use evidence obtained without a warrant as evidence to convict a defendant of a crime.

If the search and seizure does not pass constitutional muster, meaning the law enforcement officers violated its protections, the evidence is suppressed. This means the case may go forward, but the state or federal government cannot use the illegally obtained evidence against a defendant. In many cases, this causes the government to drop the case or a judge or jury not to convict a defendant because it cannot show evidence of proof of a crime by a reasonable doubt.

With these concepts in mind, the Jones case held the government’s attachment of a GPS monitoring device to Jones’ vehicle and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. Because the search warrant to do so had expired, and the GPS unit was installed in a different state than the search warrant allowed, this was an illegal search and seizure.

This may seem odd since many, if not most, search and seizure cases involve private property (real estate and a structure on it, but not necessarily privately owned lands) and the need of a search warrant authorized by a judge to execute, or exigent circumstances (i.e., the person in/on the property, such as a private home, is destroying evidence). This search may occur without a warrant.

The Jones case involved Jones’ Jeep motor vehicle. Clearly, in a public area, a law enforcement officer may look into a vehicle and develop probable cause to believe a crime occurred. This is not that case. Instead, it involves personal property. The Jones case makes clear this is constitutionally protected property as it relates to searches and seizures.

The government’s physical intrusion (the search and seizure), involved the Jeep. The Fourth Amendment applies because a motor vehicle is an “effect” under the Fourth Amendment, according to Jones. The noun and legal definition of an “effect” is somewhat broad and includes goods, movable things, and chattels. A Jeep motor vehicle is thus an “effect.”

Therefore, the government physically occupied this private property (personal property) for the purpose of obtaining information about Jones’s movements. Stated differently, since Jones lawfully possessed the Jeep at the time the Government trespassorily inserted the information-gathering device, the officers encroached on a protected area.

Thus, the government had to possess a valid search warrant to do so. They did not. At the trial court level, the judge suppressed the GPS evidence obtained while the Jeep was parked at Jones’ residence. On appeal, the D.C. Circuit Court reversed by concluding that the admission of any and all of the evidence obtained by this warrantless use of the GPS device violated the Fourth Amendment as was an illegal search and seizure, the evidence therefore being suppressed.

Ultimately, your car is your “effect” and is constitutionally protected property. This does not mean that probable cause cannot be developed and a warrant obtained for a GPS unit to be installed on any car. However, it is protected property and the government must treat it as such.

I hope this blog post provides you with some insight in the factually and legally complex area of constitutional law. Cases like Jones protect us from a freedom standpoint, and, at the same time, try to maintain a balance with the legitimate needs of law enforcement. Presumably, none of us want to hamstring their efforts to make the free society we live in a safe one.

This blog post is written by Bryan L. Ciyou, Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. offices are located in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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