Comments on United States vs. Jones: What’s Old is New Again (Guest Blog Post)

By Ethan Ackerman with comments from Eric

U.S. v. Jones No. 10–1259 (U.S. Supreme Court; Jan 23, 2012)

In 2005 federal agents convinced a judge to issue a warrant so they could affix a cellular-based GPS tracker to the underside of Antoine Jones’ wife’s car, which the agents then tracked constantly for almost a month. Unfortunately for the federal agents’ subsequent criminal prosecution of Jones on cocaine distribution and conspiracy charges, the agents did so after the warrant had expired, and in a different state than the warrant permitted. After an unsuccessful trial, Jones appealed his conviction to the D.C Circuit, which suppressed the warrantless surveillance, finding it was obtained through a Fourth Amendment violation.

In so holding, the D.C. Circuit split with the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Circuits on the matter. Importantly for the Supreme Court, each of these Circuits found no search occurred (or in the case of the D.C. Circuit, a search had occurred) when analyzing the ‘search’ under the ‘reasonableness’ test of Fourth Amendment law developed from Katz v. United States.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court held that the government’s search was a Fourth Amendment violation. Importantly, the five-member majority opinion by Justice Scalia reaches that result by effectively resurrecting the ‘trespass’ element of Fourth Amendment law that has been dormant for almost 50 years–and wasn’t a part of any of the underlying Circuits’ opinions. I don’t want to denigrate the significance of that holding, and I suspect it will dominate much of the scholarly commentary about the ruling. Already, the universally-cited Orin Kerr, blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy, has several posts up already about the trespass and mosaic theories aspects of Jones.]

However, my biggest surprises from the opinions were the unanimity of support for the idea that this was a constitutionally-suspect search, and the numerical majority that also found this search unreasonable for non-tresspassory “reasonableness” reasons. It’s kind of a big deal that all nine Justices found this case to be a Constitutionally-infirm search, disagreeing with a significant portion (probably a majority) of the Circuit Courts’ benches. Even more so, it’s truly a big deal that five (a numerical majority) found this search “unreasonable” under a reasonableness test that looked to the intent of the searching officers and so casually dismissed the atomistic arguments of the government that at each moment the searching was being done in a public place. Both of these arguments have been mainstays in earlier Fourth Amendment decisions.

Additionally, much of the earlier commentary on the D.C. Circuit’s unreasonableness rationale, somewhat pejoratively nicknamed a “mosaic theory,” had focused on its novelty and un-testedness. However, five justices appear ready to apply it in this case. In particular, Justice Sotomayor ‘s concurrence makes clear that she agrees with Justice Alito’s four-member opinion adopting the D.C. Circuit’s reasonableness rationale. In that concurrence, she amplifies the majority opinion’s holding relying on trespass principles, but indicates this is an “irreducible constitutional minimum,” above which Katz’s reasonableness rationale (which Justice Scalia’s majority opinion doesn’t denigrate, even if it declines to evaluate the applicability of) still controls. Tom Goldstein shares my conclusion that there are effectively two majority opinions in this case. His excellent observations are here and also illuminate just how much was not resolved in the decision.

Eric’s Comments

I really only learned two things in my Criminal Procedure class from law school: (1) every fact matters, and (2) the Supreme Court makes up the rules from case-to-case. At the time, I didn’t feel I got very much from my class, but in retrospect, perhaps I actually learned everything that really mattered in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. As Ethan recaps and as Paul Ohm indicated (United States v. Jones is a Near-Optimal Result), this opinion is a mix of good news (get a warrant before GPSing my car) and unresolved issues (basically everything else–ranging from practical questions like the legitimacy of warrantless tracking of cellphone movements to theory battles over whether the Fourth Amendment protects against trespass, violations of reasonable expectations of privacy or both).

Putting aside those important questions, the opinions articulated some deep distrust of government motives. I am always perplexed when the privacy community loses sight that the government is the real privacy threat, not the private sector. It also seemed that the judges did, in fact, internalize the personal threat that police could monitor their own cars without a warrant. It reminded me a little of the RIM case where the judges tried to envision their personal situation without their Crackberries.