In a case profiled here in October, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling this week reversing the conviction of Antoine Jones. The case held the potential to drastically alter the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, but due to the very narrow grounds the Court based its ruling on, many of the issues related to warrantless electronic monitoring of suspects has been left to future cases.
While the Fourth Amendment may seem technical or scholastic to some, the meaning of the right to be secure in one’s person and possessions has far-reaching effects in most criminal cases. The charges the State brings against a defendant, whether murder charges or drug possession, almost always implicate the Fourth Amendment. Our experienced Annapolis drug possession attorneys have the knowledge and understanding of the Fourth Amendment necessary to protect our clients’ rights.
The Supreme Court held that the case was a “classic trespassory search” within the meaning originally provided by the framers of the Fourth Amendment, because of the nature of the police’s action: “[t]he Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information.”. The earliest case law on the Fourth Amendment only addressed violations of privacy that involved physical trespass. For example, in Olmstead v. United States, decided in 1928, the Court held that there was no Fourth Amendment violation when a wiretap was attached to telephone wires on public streets; without a physical trespass to an individual’s property or person, there was no search.
The Court altered its analysis of what a Fourth Amendment search was in Katz v. United States, a 1967 case in which a listening device was placed on the outside of a public telephone booth. With that case, the Court expanded the protections of the Fourth Amendment to include more than situations where there was a physical trespass to a person or his or her property. Under Katz, a Fourth Amendment violation occurred when the police violated an individual’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The Katz decision did not, however, get rid of the restrictions on traditional “trespassory” searches.
Thus, applied to this case, the Court held that the police’s action in placing the GPS tracking device on Jones’ vehicle constituted a Fourth Amendment search because there was a physical trespass to his property. Because the police did not have a valid warrant at the time they placed the tracking device, they violated the Fourth Amendment, and the Court reversed Jones’ conviction.
What is perhaps most interesting to this decision is what it did not decide. Justice Scalia, along with Justices Roberts, Thomas, and Kennedy joined, provided what is considered to be the majority opinion, because Justice Sotomayor concurred with the opinion. Justice Sotomayor suggested that she wished the majority had expanded its opinion, pointing out that “[i]n cases of electronic or other novel modes of surveillance that do not depend upon a physical invasion on property, the majority opinion’s trespassory test may provide little guidance.”