23 January 2013

SCOTUS in Plain English: United States v. Jones

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe Supreme Court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case at SCOTUblog below. For similar posts, click here.

United States v. Jones

Police attached a GPS tracking device to Jones' Jeep and tracked his movements for almost a month. Later, they used the data to associate him with various locations, including places where drugs were located. The Supreme Court ruled that placing the device on the Jeep constituted a physical trespass, and thus constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment--the police physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. To be clear, the GPS tracking device was placed on the Jeep while it was in a public parking lot--but placing the device on the Jeep was still considered a trespass on Jones' property. As a result, the evidence gained from the GPS could not be used against Jones and his conviction was overturned. The practical impact of this decision is that police will likely need to obtain a warrant to track (at least some) vehicles by GPS, although it still remains unclear if this is necessary for all GPS tracking, or only tracking over a certain (as yet undetermined) period of time. It is also unclear how this ruling might impact future decisions about tracking via cell phone data--although, a lower court has ruled that cell phone tracking data could be used against Jones; it appears likely that he will be convicted again despite police not having the GPS data.
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