Vol. 27 No. 2 – U.S. Supreme Court Rules Use of GPS Tracking Device Is A Search


In a unanimous decision on January 23, 2012, in United States v. Antoine Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court held that attaching a GPS device to a vehicle, and then using the device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.  As such, it requires securing a warrant.

The opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, but the justices had different rationales in arriving at that decision, leaving unsettled the question of how much protection one may expect from the Fourth Amendment in the digital age.  Justices Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor agreed with the conclusion, but wrote concurring opinions with different theories.

The case involves Antoine Jones, a Washington nightclub owner, who was sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy to sell cocaine. Police used information against him which was obtained from a GPS tracker they placed on his Jeep Grand Cherokee. Jones said the evidence was obtained unlawfully, because police didn’t have a valid warrant.

In fact, a warrant had been obtained which authorized the installation to be done within 10 days thereafter, and within the District of Columbia.  However, the device was placed on the car 11 days later and in Maryland, not D.C.  The government then tracked the vehicle’s movement for the next 28 days, 24 hours a day.

The federal District Court suppressed data secured while the vehicle was parked at Jones’ home, but held the remaining data was admissible because it held that Jones had no reasonable expectation of privacy when the vehicle was on public streets.  The Court of Appeal reversed his conviction stating that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated since the evidence had been obtained without a valid warrant and the Supreme Court agreed.

Supreme Court’s Analysis

“We hold 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.”

“By attaching the device to the Jeep, officers encroached on a protected area,” Scalia wrote. He concluded that the installation of the device on the vehicle without a warrant was a trespass and therefore an illegal search.  “The government’s physical intrusion on the Jeep for the purpose of obtaining information constitutes a search.”

Scalia further stated that, “where, as here, the government obtains information by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area, such a search has undoubtedly occurred.”

“It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case: The Government physically occupied private proper­ty for the purpose of obtaining information. We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.”

Trespass v. Right of Privacy

In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito stated that the issue wasn’t the “trespass” but, rather, whether Jones’ “reasonable expectations of privacy were violated by the long-term monitoring of the movements of the vehicle he drove.”

Alito said, “if long-term monitoring can be accomplished without committing a technical trespass — suppose for example, that the federal government required or persuaded auto manufacturers to include a GPS tracking device in every car — the court’s theory would provide no protection.”

Nonetheless, said Alito, even though he did not believe the mere attaching of the GPS constituted an illegal search, “we need not identify with precision the point at which the tracking of this vehicle became a search, for the line was surely crossed before the four-week mark.”  Scalia stated that “we may have to grapple” with those issues in the future, “but there is no reason for rushing forward to resolve them here.”

It appears, therefore, that additional litigation will arise in future cases as to whether, and under what circumstances, such long term tracking will be permitted, absent a warrant.


The case, which during oral arguments had prompted the justices’ to refer to George Orwell’s futuristic novel 1984, and to “Big Brother” government, seems to ensure that police cannot use a GPS device to continuously track a suspect before obtaining a warrant from a judge.

It appears that there will be future cases focusing on when use of such devices, and for how long, can occur without a warrant.  One might be able to make arguments to allow such tracking when the crime involved could result in immediate danger – such as kidnapping cases or terrorist activity.  However, for now, it is not debatable that the use of such electronic monitoring, by placing the device on one’s property, is a violation of the Fourth Amendment if it is done without first obtaining a warrant.

In all matters involving legal interpretation, it is important to seek out and secure advice and guidance from your agency’s designated attorney.  As always, however, if you wish to discuss this case in greater detail, please don’t hesitate to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via e-mail at mjm@jones-mayer.com.

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