Supreme Court to Address Warrantless Use of GPS Tracking Device

October 11, 2011
By Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC on October 11, 2011 4:15 PM |

gps.jpgNext month, in a case that has multiple connections to the State of Maryland, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral argument over whether the prolonged, warrantless use of a GPS tracking device is an unreasonable search precluded by the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The case, United States v. Jones, could have far-reaching effects on the government's ability to track its citizens without first obtaining a warrant based on probable cause.

The Jones case will have a direct impact on Maryland criminal jurisprudence. In 2008, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled in Stone v. State that the use of a GPS device without a warrant is consistent with the 4th Amendment and prior Supreme Court decisions. If the Supreme Court upholds the decision of the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, Maryland search and seizure law will change. An Anne Arundel County attorney experienced in the application of the 4th Amendment to the State's ever-increasing use of technology is essential to protect the rights of individuals whose constitutional rights have been violated.

In Jones, the DC police department obtained a warrant to place a GPS device on Jones' Jeep, but the police installed the GPS device after the warrant had expired, and while the Jeep was in Maryland, outside of the jurisdiction of the DC court that authorized the warrant. The police thereafter tracked Jones' movements for a month, including his visits to a suspected "stash house" in Fort Washington, Maryland. Based in part on the evidence obtained from the GPS tracking, Jones, an owner of a DC nightclub, was convicted of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute over 5kg of cocaine, and over 50g of cocaine base.

The closest Supreme Court precedent to the issue before the Court is United States v. Knotts. In that case, the police placed a radio transmitter in a container of ether, and tracked the movements of an individual from a location in Minnesota to a secluded cabin in Wisconsin. The Supreme Court held that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy while driving on public roads, and thus the monitoring of those movements did not constitute a search.

The Circuit Court for the District of Columbia held that the tracking of Jones movements for an entire month constituted a search that implicated the 4th Amendment's protections, despite the ruling of the Supreme Court in Knotts. The Circuit Court reasoned that the aggregation of an entire month's worth of Jones' movement was distinguishable from the tracking of a discrete trip that the Supreme Court considered in Knotts. The Court acknowledged that whether an expectation of privacy is reasonable depends in large part upon whether the "private" information has been exposed to the public, and that when an individual drives on a public road, his or her activities are "public." The court nevertheless determined that "to track Jones's movements 24 hours a day for 28 days as he moved among scores of places, thereby discovering the totality and pattern of his individual movements from place to place to place," was distinct from merely tracking his "movements from one place to another." As the Court stated, "the whole of one's movements over the course of a month is not actually exposed to the public because the likelihood anyone will observe all those movements is effectively nil." In other words, even if all of the movements were in public, an individual can reasonably expect that his or her movements are not all being tracked by the government by way of a hidden device on his or her vehicle.

The United States argues on appeal that, contrary to the Circuit Court's ruling, Knotts is controlling. There is no distinction, according to the United States' argument, between tracking a single trip and the tracking of a vehicle over a longer period of time, because the movement of a vehicle on public roads is exposed to the public. Because the police could have observed Jones' movements in person, without a warrant, there was not a "search."

Jones counters that the "fact that equivalent information could sometimes be obtained by other means does not make lawful the use of means that violate the Fourth Amendment." The police would not be able to create the same sort of data merely by visually watching Jones' movements - GPS is more precise. "Prolonged GPS surveillance enables the government to record information about a person's pattern of movement to a degree not feasible through visual surveillance." As such, the accumulation of data of this magnitude amounts to a 4th Amendment search, and requires a warrant.

The outcome of the case could have far reaching effects, both in criminal law and with respect to the government's authority to monitor citizens. If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling of the lower court, Maryland's law governing the use of GPS monitoring will be altered, and the State's authority to track criminal suspects will be limited. If you believe your constitutional rights have been violated by the police's use of a GPS device or some other technology, call a Maryland attorney experienced in protecting the 4th Amendment rights of criminal defendants.