Legal Daily News Feature

Supreme Court Ruling in U.S. v. Jones Affects FBI Tracking of Citizens
By Surajit Sen Sharma In a landmark case that has gone quite unnoticed, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that ‘’The Government’s attachment of the GPS device to the vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.’’

02/28/12 While the case came up on separate questions of jurisdiction in the application of a search warrant, the broader outcome of United States v. Jones is a win for citizens under Fourth Amendment and stops state authorities from undue tracking of citizens. The case in short is that the Washington DC government obtained a search warrant that allowed it to install a GPS tracking device on a vehicle registered to Jones’s wife. The warrant authorized installation in the District of Columbia and within 10 days, but agents installed the device in Maryland and on the 11th day. Subsequently, the government tracked the vehicle for 28 days and secured an indictment of Jones and others on drug trafficking conspiracy charges. The District Court suppressed the GPS data obtained while the vehicle was parked at Jones’s residence, but held the remaining data admissible because Jones had no reasonable expectation of privacy when the vehicle was on public streets. Jones was convicted. The D.C. Circuit reversed the conviction concluding that admission of evidence obtained by warrantless use of the GPS device violated the Fourth Amendment. The effect of the ruling upheld by the Supreme Court of U.S.A. has been far reaching.

Last Friday, while speaking at the University of San Francisco, the FBI General Counsel Andrew Weismann said that the judgment has caused a “sea change” within the U.S. Justice Department as the process is on to disable close to 3,000 GPS tracking devices installed underneath vehicles of citizens to track them. In suitable cases, the FBI would have to seek permission before briefly turning on the devices in order to locate and remove them. The FBI chief hinted that the ruling raises the question of whether agents could be committing trespass if they lifted the lid on a garbage can, since according to the Supreme Court’s opinion, the act of attaching a GPS tracking device to a car constitutes trespass. Such an opinion of the FBI chief comes as a surprise, and in more conservative countries would have clearly been termed as “contempt of court” since the courts which had ruled in favor of Jones including both the Circuit Court and lastly the Supreme Court have clearly gone to lengths to show that the Court was not creating any new rule of law, and that this was not a case of judicial activism, but the application of the law according to long-settled stare decisis. The pdf of the judgment can be found here.( http://www. supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-1259.pdf)

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