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United States v. Jones

Can a reasonable expectation of privacy be extended to public spaces?



BACKGROUND:

Docket: 10-1259

Date Argued: November 8, 2011

Date Decided: January 23, 2012


On October 24, 2005, Antoine Jones, owner of the nightclub "Levels" in D.C., was arrested for the possession of drugs. The evidence used to charge Jones came from a GPS tracker that local law enforcement attached to Jones' Jeep without a warrant. When the first jury found Jones not guilty on all charges except conspiracy to distribute drugs, the district prosecutors decided to file a new charge: just conspiracy. Jones and his business partner were convicted of conspiracy, but three judges from the Court of Appeals in D.C. ruled that the evidence that the police gathered through the GPS tracker was unconstitutional and needed a warrant that the police didn't have, as per a former Supreme Court decision. (See Mapp V. Ohio)


PRESIDING QUESTIONS: Did a use of a GPS device to track the movement of Jones’ jeep violate Jones’ Fourth Amendment rights? Did it matter that the jeep was tracked when it was moving on public streets and not private property? Did the usage of the GPS necessitate a warrant?


OUTCOME - 9-0 Unanimous Majority Decision for Jones

  • The court upheld the holding of the lower court in DC, holding that it was indeed an unlawful search. Since the Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches of their "persons, houses, papers, and effects," and since Jones' car is one of his "effects," any form of physical intrusion upon these items is indeed unlawful if done without a warrant.


PARTIES AND OPINIONS

Side 1- United States (Petitioner)

  • Petitioner Argument - The use of the GPS tracking device to track the movement of Jones’ jeep in public spaces was not a violation of Jones’ Fourth Amendment rights because one cannot have a reasonable expectation of privacy while moving in public spaces.

Side 2- Antoine Jones (Respondent)

  • Antoine Jones was a owner of the nightclub “Levels” in D.C. who was being charged for conspiracy due to his possession of drugs.

  • Respondent Argument : The use of the GPS was a violation of Jones’ Fourth Amendment rights because it necessitated a warrant and because the Fourth Amendment protects searches and seizures of all citizens’ personal property, which the car was.


Majority Opinion

  • All nine justices agree that it was an unlawful search. In this case, the electronic monitoring of the GPS substitutes physical intrusion which violates the 4th Amendment. While the United States’ counsel tried to argue that a reasonable expectation of privacy must be considered in making the judgment (as per Katz v. United States) and that one cannot have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they move in public spaces, the Court rejected this idea.


Concurring Opinion

  • Justice Sonia Sotomayor concurred that while the government did indeed violate Jones' Fourth Amendment rights, the Fourth Amendment does not just cover trespassing onto private property, but that it also includes the idea that the government cannot violate a subjective expectation of privacy that is corroborated by society, upholding the necessity of the Katz Test from Katz v. United States.

  1. The Katz Test is a two-step process to determine admissibility of evidence based on: 1) if the defendant had a subjective reasonable expectation of privacy and 2) if society would reaffirm this. Sotomayor argued that Jones would have a reasonable expectation of privacy within his car and would consider the usage of a GPS to monitor his car a breach of his privacy.

  • Justice Samuel Alito also concurred, but he focused on criticizing the framing of the question and argument: he believed that it would have been better to focus on whether or not the government violated Jones' expectation of privacy rather than focusing on trespass of private property.


SIGNIFICANCE


The Bill of Rights protects all US citizens from unlawful extensions of power by the government and is considered one of the most influential documents in US history, one that sets the precedent for the way US citizens and their rights will be protected. The Fourth Amendment protects all citizens from unlawful searches and seizures and has been one of the key points of contention in many landmark cases.


With the advancement of technology, however, physical intrusion and trespassing has become unnecessary to many forms of surveillance and searches. United States v. Jones shows the way both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights adapt to fit the needs of a growing and progressing citizenry with more access to technology. It also raises a question of whether or not federal institutions will have to pass stricter bills in consideration with both personal privacy and the Fourth Amendment. With the onset of social media and the emergence of a “digital footprint,” more information about one’s personal and private life is readily available, so it seems more and more likely that a new amendment will be passed in the future, one that explicitly outlines what is and what isn’t considered a reasonable expectation of privacy.


As discussed prior, the case also upholds and sustains the landmark case Katz v. United States demonstrating how the Supreme Court uses precedents set by its previous decisions in order to ensure the utmost protection of the country’s citizenry– the idea of Stare Decisis.


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