Criminal Procedure, Pages 38–48

United States v. Jones

Supreme Court of the United States, 2012


Defendant, a nightclub owner, was under investigation for drug trafficking by the FBI and Metropolitan Police. After using other surveillance, like a surveillance camera, a pen register, and wiretapping, the government applied for a warrant to put a cellular GPS tracker on defendant's SUV. A warrant was issued authorizing installing the tracker in district court within 10 day, but the government waited 11 days and installed it Maryland, not complying with the warrant. The government then used the tracker for 28 days to track defendant and charged him with conspiracy to distribute and posses five kilograms or more of cocaine and 50 grams or more cocaine base.

Procedural History:

  • Defendant moved to to suppress the GPS evidence, which the district court granted in part, suppressing only data obtained while parked in defendant's garage because "'"[a] person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another."'"

  • After a hung jury at the first trial, defendant was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

  • Court of appeals reversed, holding that the warrantless use of the GPS device violated the Fourth Amendment.


Does attaching a GPS tracker to someone's vehicle and using that to monitor their movements constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment?

Prosecution's Argument:

Defendant had no reasonable expectation in the Jeep's underbody, where it was accessed by Government agents.


While Katz expanded the understanding of the Fourth Amendment to include violating a person's reasonable expectation of privacy, the traditional understanding of the Fourth Amendment still applies as well, where a trespass to obtain information is a search. A vehicle is an effect under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. While neither simply installing the device nor just accessing it would constitute a search, combined the trespass and the information acquisition do make a search.

Holding that this violates the Katz test raises more problems. Saying the traditional trespassory interpretation does not apply anymore would remove constitutional rights. It is simply a minimum standard that Katz added to. Case law would say that even the extensive traditional observation of defendant was not a search. Saying that it becomes one when a GPS tracking device is used to do the same thing for a longer time is no good. No precedent would support such a distinction, and it would require a line to be drawn in how long is too long for monitoring.


Installing a GPS device on a target's vehicle and using it to monitor his movement constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.



Concurring Opinions:

  • Sotomayor: This is a search, and the traditional trespass analysis is valid in this case. However, in the future, the government may be able to access manufacturer-installed cellular GPS trackers and thus not commit a trespass while monitoring and learning about everyone in the country. Being constantly monitored through GPS trackers is likely not reasonably expected. This does not actually need deciding in this case, but it is an issue that needs deciding eventually and secrecy should not be taken to be the same thing as privacy.

  • Alito: This should not be decided by the original understanding of the Fourth Amendment based on old tort law. Case law does not even support that approach. It also places too much emphasis on the attaching of the device and not enough on the length of tracking. What is a trespass even varies by state. And what if it was a manufacturer-installed device?

    This should use the Katz analysis instead. Computers have changed the world and people's expectations of privacy. While no precise limit needs to be made here, society's expectation would say that four weeks is too long for law enforcement to track someone without it being considered a search under the Fourth Amendment.