U.S. Supreme Court, January 23, 2012

The Government’s attachment of a GPS device to a vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.

The Government obtained a search warrant to install a Global-Positioning-System (GPS) on the defendant’s vehicle.   The warrant authorized the installation of the GPS within 10 days in the District of Columbia but the Government installed the GPS on the 11th day in Maryland.  The GPS was in place for 28 days and provided evidence that resulted in the defendant’s arrest, indictment and conviction for several drug-related offenses.

After being convicted, the defendant appealed based on the District Court’s decision, to allow in part and deny in part, his motion to suppress the evidence obtained through the GPS.  The United States Court of Appeals reversed the convictions because the admission of the GPS evidence violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.  The D.C. Circuit denied the Government’s petition for a rehearing en banc and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
In its decision, the Court stated that by placing the GPS on the defendant’s vehicle, the “Government physically occupied private proper¬ty for the purpose of obtaining information.”   It discussed the historically close connection between Fourth Amendment rights and property rights.  

The Government argued that under more recent Supreme Court jurisprudence, property rights are not the only measure of Fourth Amendment rights and instead the inquiry focuses on a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” U.S. v. Katz, 389 U. S. 347 (1967).  The Court held that the Katz decision did not erase the previously recognized protection of property and that the “reasonable-expectation-of-privacy test has been added to, not substituted for, the common-law trespassory test.”  The Court distinguished the instant case from United States v. Knotts,  460 U.S. 276 (1983) and United States v. Karo, 468 U.S. 705 (1984) in which electronic tracking devices (beepers) were placed in a container before the defendants took possession of the containers.  In those cases, the defendant accepted the container with the beeper and therefore there was no property right violation and no intrusion of Fourth Amendment rights.  The Government’s argument that a vehicle is within the public eye and therefore an examination does not constitute a search was unmeritorious because this case involved more than a mere visual inspection.  The Government encroached on a protected area by placing the GPS on the vehicle.
The Court held “[t]he Government’s attachment of the GPS device to the vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, consti¬tutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.”  The Court refused to consider the reasonableness of the search because this argument was not raised by the Government nor addressed by the D.C. Circuit.

United States v. Jones is consistent with the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Connolly, 454 Mass. 808 (2009).  In Connolly, the SJC held that the installation of a GPS system inside of the defendant’s minivan constituted a seizure under art. 14 and accordingly required a warrant.  The use of a GPS device also constituted a seizure, because tracking the vehicle's movement interferes with the defendant's exclusionary right to exclude his property from “all the world.”  The Court stated, “[i]t is a seizure not by virtue of the technology employed, but because the police use private property (the vehicle) to obtain information for their own purposes.”  In Connolly the SJC also held that warrants related to GPS devices are valid for 15 days.