UNITED STATES V. JONES

This is an audio case brief of United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012). The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.

Table of Contents

FACTS

Antoine Jones was the owner and operator of a nightclub in the District of Columbia. In 2004, he came under suspicion for trafficking in narcotics. And so he became the target of an investigation by a joint FBI and Metropolitan Police Department task force. Officers employed various investigative techniques to investigate Jones, including visual surveillance of the nightclub, installation of a camera focused on the front door of the club, and a pen register and wiretap covering Jones’s cell phone.

Based in part on information gathered from these sources, in 2005 the Government applied to the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia for a warrant authorizing the use of an electronic tracking device on a Jeep registered to Jones’s wife. A warrant was issued, which authorized installation of the device in the District of Columbia and within 10 days.

On the 11th day, and not in the District of Columbia but in Maryland,  agents installed a GPS tracking device on the undercarriage of the Jeep while it was parked in a public parking lot. Over the next 28 days, the Government used the device to track the vehicle’s movements, and once had to replace the device’s battery when the vehicle was parked in a different public lot in Maryland. By means of signals from multiple satellites, the device established the vehicle’s location within 50 to 100 feet, and communicated that location by cellphone to a Government computer. It relayed more than 2,000 pages of data over the 4–week period.

The Government ultimately obtained a multiple-count indictment charging Jones and several alleged co-conspirators with conspiracy to distribute, and possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and 50 grams or more of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841 and 846.

Before trial, Jones filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained through the GPS device. The District Court granted the motion only in part, suppressing the data obtained while the vehicle was parked in the garage adjoining Jones’s residence. It held the remaining data admissible. The court reasoned that person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another.

Jones’s trial in October 2006 produced a hung jury on the conspiracy count.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In March 2007, a grand jury returned another indictment, charging Jones and others with the same conspiracy. The Government introduced at trial the same GPS-derived locational data admitted in the first trial, which connected Jones to the alleged conspirators’ stash house that contained $850,000 in cash, 97 kilograms of cocaine, and 1 kilogram of cocaine base.

The jury returned a guilty verdict, and the District Court sentenced Jones to life imprisonment.

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the conviction . The court did so because of the admission of the evidence obtained by warrantless use of the GPS device which. The court said,  it violated the Fourth Amendment. The D.C. Circuit denied the Government’s petition for rehearing before all the judges of the court, with four judges dissenting.

The U.S Supreme Court agreed to review Jones Case.

ISSUE

Whether the attachment of a GPS tracking device to an individual’s vehicle, and subsequent use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements on public streets, constitutes a search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

RULE

Physical intrusion of a private property with the purpose of obtaining information is a search within the 4thamendment of the constitutions.

APPLICATION / ANALYSIS

The Government argued its conduct was not a search because Jones had no “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the particular area of the Jeep, which is the underbody of the jeep, that was accessed by Government agents. Jones also had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the locations of the Jeep on the public roads, which were visible to all.

But the court disagreed . Because, the court stated that Jones’s Fourth Amendment rights do not rise or fall with the Katz formulation, which established the reasonable expectation of privacy standard. As explained, for most of our history the Fourth Amendment was understood to embody a particular concern for government trespass upon the areas. That is the trespass of persons, houses, papers, and effects. Katz did not repudiate that understanding.

Katz, the Court explained, established that property rights are not the sole measure of Fourth Amendment violations, but did not snuff out the previously recognized protection for property. Katz did not erode the principle that, when the Government does engage in physical intrusion of a constitutionally protected area in order to obtain information that, that intrusion may constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment. We have embodied that preservation of past rights in our very definition of “reasonable expectation of privacy” which we have said to be an expectation “that has a source outside of the Fourth Amendment, either by reference to concepts of real or personal property law or to understandings that are recognized and permitted by society.”

The government then relied on two additional cases which were decided after Katz to argue that its conduct in this case was not a search.

The first case the government relied on was Knott.

In Knott, the government obtained permission from the owner of a container of chloroform to place a beeper in it. The beeper was placed in the container of chloroform before it come into Knotts possession. The container was carried in an automobile which traveled on public road. And the beeper allowed law enforcement to monitor the location of the container.

There, the court found that there had been no infringement of Knotts’ reasonable expectation of privacy since the information obtained—the location of the automobile carrying the container on public roads, and the location of the off-loaded container in open fields near Knotts’ cabin—had been voluntarily conveyed to the public.

However, in comparing Knott to the current case, the court stated that the Katz reasonable-expectation-of-privacy test has been added to, not substituted for, the common-law trespassory test. The holding in Knotts addressed only the reasonable expectation of privacy test not the trespassory test since the trespassory test was not at issue.

The second case that the government relied on was Karo

 Karo also involved a situation where a beeper was placed in a container to monitor the location of the beeper.

Like Knotts, at the time the beeper was installed the container belonged to a third party, and it did not come into possession of the defendant until later. Therefore, the specific question that was considered was whether the installation “with the consent of the original owner constituted a search or seizure … when the container is delivered to a buyer having no knowledge of the presence of the beeper.” The court held that it did not.

The Government, came into physical contact with the container before it belonged to the defendant Karo; and the transfer of the container with the unmonitored beeper inside did not convey any information and thus did not invade Karo’s privacy. Karo accepted the container as it came to him, beeper and all, and was therefore not entitled to object to the beeper’s presence, even though it was used to monitor the container’s location.

But  Jones, who possessed the Jeep at the time the Government trespassorrly inserted the information-gathering device, is on much different footing.

Finally, the government pointed out that  the exterior of a car … is thrust into the public eye, and thus to examine it does not constitute a ‘search.’ ” But the court disagreed. The court found the statement to be of marginal relevance since, as the Government acknowledged, “the officers in this case did more than conduct a visual inspection of Jones’s vehicle.”  By attaching the device to the Jeep, officers encroached on a protected area.

CONCLUSION

The court held that the Government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a “search.”

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