United States v. Jones

132 S.Ct. 945 (2012)


Respondent Jones was an owner and operator of a nightclub and came under suspicion of narcotics trafficking.  Based on information gathered through various investigative techniques, police were granted a warrant authorizing use of a GPS tracking device on the Jeep registered to Jones’ wife (of which Jones was the exclusive driver), but failed to comply with the warrant’s deadline.  Officials nevertheless installed the device on the undercarriage of the Jeep and used it to track the vehicle’s movements.  By satellite, the device established the vehicle’s location within 50 to 100 feet and communicated the location by cell phone to a government computer, relaying more than 2,000 pages of data over a 28-day period.  The government ultimately obtained an indictment against Jones which included charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

Procedural History

The district court granted Jones’ pre-trial motion to suppress in part, only suppressing the data obtained while the vehicle was parked in the Jones’s home garage.  A hung jury led to a second trial, which resulted in a guilty verdict.  The D.C. Circuit Court reversed the conviction, holding the admission of evidence obtained by warrantless use of the GPS device violated the Fourth Amendment.


Does the attachment of a GPS tracking device to a vehicle and subsequent use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements on public streets constitute a search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment?

Rule / Holding

(Scalia) Yes.  Affirmed.  The government’s installation and use of a GPS device to track the vehicle’s movements constituted a “search.”


Scalia argued that the government’s physical intrusion on Jones’s car (a personal “effect”) would clearly be a search within the original meaning of the Fourth Amendment, which for most of its history was particularly concerned with government trespass on private property for the purpose of finding something or obtaining information.  The Katz “reasonable expectation of privacy” standard did not repudiate that understanding, but rather added to it.  The Knotts and Karo beeper cases are distinguishable because there, the electronic device was not placed on property already possessed by the defendant—thus, only the Katz test was applicable.  Here, the police physically encroached on a protected area to gather information.

Alito (joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan) concurred in the judgment, disagreeing with the majority that any technical trespass that results in the gathering of evidence amounts to search, and asserting that the case should have been analyzed under the Katz standard.  He stated that because GPS technology is relatively easy and cheap, it overcomes traditional practical constraints on close surveillance and concluded that, in this case, its use violated society’s expectation that law enforcement would and could not monitor all of an individual’s movements in his car for a 4-week period.  While relatively short-term monitoring of an individual’s movements on public streets may be reasonable, “the use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy.”

Sotomayor concurred, agreeing with Scalia that Katz supplemented rather than substituted the trespassory test for whether a search has occurred.  She agreed with Alito that most long-term GPS monitoring would violate Katz, and noted that even short-term monitoring may violate an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy because of the unique nature of GPS surveillance.

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