In a little under two months, the United States Supreme Court will be hearing oral arguments in United States v. Antoine Jones, regarding the government’s ability to perform warrantless GPS tracking of a criminal suspect’s vehicle.
Although the case addresses only a narrow segment of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, the Supreme Court’s holding may potentially have a broad impact on future conflicts between technological advances in police investigative techniques and societal expectations of informational privacy.
The Supreme Court has previously held that no reasonable expectation of privacy exists in information exposed to public view, including a person’s driving route on public roads. See United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276, 281 (1983) (“[A] person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another.”). In its reversal of Antoine Jones’ conviction, however, the D.C. Circuit calls that rule into question. The court noted that a “search” may be implicated in public places where a person “does not expect anyone to monitor and retain a record of every time he drives his car” and where the government engages in “dragnet-type law enforcement practices.” United States v. Maynard, 615 F. 3d 544, 563 (D.C. Cir. 2010).
It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court responds to the D.C. Circuit’s take on privacy interests in public places, and what effect its ruling will have on other government investigative techniques. As the Department of Justice repeatedly suggested in its briefs before the D.C. Circuit and now before the Supreme Court, this case not only challenges warrantless GPS tracking, but furthermore, potentially implicates a broader array of law enforcement investigation methods that collect discrete pieces of public information over an extended period of time without a warrant.
One such law enforcement system potentially susceptible is New York’s Anti-Terror Camera Network. New York City currently has around 2,000 cameras tracking a population of approximately 8.2 million people. Already arguably one of the most extensive video surveillance systems in the country, the number of cameras is supposed to increase to approximately 3,000 units by 2013. As NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly noted in his 60 Minutes interview broadcasted earlier this week, “it is nearly impossible now to walk a block in lower Manhattan without being on television.”
Set for Tuesday, November 8, 2011, the arguments in U.S. v. Antoine Jones and the Court’s subsequent decision will undoubtedly be closely monitored by privacy rights interest groups, government officials, and public defenders alike. Until then, to learn a little more about the background behind the case, a short summary of the facts and legal issues are provided below. If you prefer to perform a more thorough read of the case materials, skip the brief and scroll straight to the case timeline embedded with links to PDFs of the relevant case briefs and court decisions.
In 2004, law enforcement officials began an investigation of Antoine Jones, a night club owner suspected of drug trafficking. After obtaining information from several visual surveillance sources that Jones might be involved in the transport and storage of illegal drugs, agents installed a GPS tracking device to a Jeep Grand Cherokee which he and his family used. The agents did not have a warrant for the GPS device. (Actually, the agents had secured a warrant for the GPS device, but failed to meet the warrant’s time and location limitations. The warrant was valid for 10 days and allowed the agents to install the device within the District of Columbia. The agents, however, installed the device 11 days after the warrant was issued in a Maryland public parking lot.) Over the course of a month, investigators monitored the data transmitted by the GPS which provided the vehicle’s location and vicinity in relation to a suspected drug stash house. With this tracking information and other evidence from visual surveillance, agents subsequently obtained arrest warrants and recovered a substantial amount of cocaine and other drug paraphernalia.
With the evidence obtained from the GPS tracking device, a jury in the D.C. federal district court convicted Antoine Jones for conspiracy to distribute illegal drugs. The court of appeals reversed the conviction finding that the warrantless GPS tracking constituted an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. The Department of Justice subsequently filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court. On June 27, 2011, the Supreme Court granted the government’s petition. Oral arguments are set for November 8, 2011.
(1) “Whether the warrantless use of a tracking device on [Antoine Jones’] vehicle to monitor its movement on public streets violated the Fourth Amendment?
(2) Whether the government violated [Antoine Jones’] Fourth Amendment rights by installing the GPS tracking device on his vehicle without a valid warrant and without his consent?”
August 6, 2010 – The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reverses the conviction of Antoine Jones and holds that warrantless GPS tracking constitutes an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.
April 15, 2011 – The DOJ files a petition for a writ of certiorari.
May 16, 2011 – Amici Curiae, Gun Owners of Amercia, Inc., et al., file an amicus brief.
June 7, 2011 – Antoine Jones files a brief in opposition to the DOJ’s petition for certiorari.
June 9, 2011 – DOJ files a reply brief to Jones’ opposition.
June 27, 2011 – U.S. Supreme Court grants Petition for Writ of Certiorari. (see page 3 of order)
August 11, 2011 – The DOJ files a brief.
August 18, 2001 – Amicus Curiae, Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, files an amicus brief.
September 26, 2011 – Antoine Jones files a brief.