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United States v. Jones
Stephanie Poniatowski, NCSTL Research Assistant, JD/MBA candidate May 2012

Advances in technology are affecting the degree of privacy citizens have enjoyed under the provisions of the Fourth Amendment. In November 2011, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in United States v. Jones1 (formerly United States v. Maynard) to determine whether placing a GPS on a suspect's vehicle without a warrant qualifies as a search and whether the Fourth Amendment is violated when law enforcement uses the tracking device to follow of a vehicle's whereabouts. The Supreme Court's holding will address how the Fourth Amendment's ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures" applies at a time when people's movements are constantly documented by technology contained in their phones, vehicles, GPS’s, and other devices.2

Maynard arose from the investigation of Antoine Jones, a Washington nightclub owner, who was suspected of conspiring to distribute cocaine.3 In September 2005, police obtained a warrant and placed a GPS device on Jones’ Jeep in Maryland.4 The warrant they obtained, however, had expired and restricted them to tracking Jones in Washington DC only.5 The police tracked Jones's movement for a month and used the evidence they gathered to convict him for narcotics violations.6 Consequently, he was sentenced to life in prison.7 On appeal, Jones argued his conviction should be overturned because the evidence obtained by the warrantless GPS device that tracked his movements continuously for a month should not have been admitted because it violated his "reasonable expectation of privacy" under the Fourth Amendment.8

The Government argued the applicability of United States v. Knotts, in which the Supreme Court held that "the use of a beeper device to aid in tracking a suspect to his drug lab was not a search."9 The Knotts court reasoned that a person moving on public roadways has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his travels from one place to another.10 The Government argued that because the evidence uncovered as a result of the GPS device involved Jones’s movements while he was on public streets, no violation of his privacy had taken place.11

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit disagreed that Knotts applied to this case because the two situations are distinguishable on the facts. In Knotts, the police tracked the defendant during a three hour car ride. In contrast, law enforcement recorded Jones's movement continuously for an entire month.12 The court stated that "prolonged GPS monitoring defeats an expectation of privacy that our society recognizes as reasonable"13 and held that the use of the GPS device constituted a search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Thereafter, the court overturned his conviction.14

The Supreme Court's decision will hopefully provide guidance on how technological advances affect privacy guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court should take this opportunity to outline the extent to which a person can reasonably expect privacy in a world in which technology is constantly progressing. If the Supreme Court finds that GPS monitoring devices may be used without a warrant, it will open the possibilities of using more advanced technology to gather evidence. In turn, this will increase privacy concerns.

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1 United States v. Jones, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 17256 (D.C. Cir. Apr. 7, 2011)
2 Liptak, Adam. "Court Case Asks If ‘Big Brother’ Is Spelled GPS." The New York Times. 10 Sept. 2011. .
3 United States v. Maynard, 615 F.3d 544, 549 (D.C. Cir. 2010)
4 Id. at 555
5 Id. at 557
6 Liptak, Adam. "Court Case Asks If ‘Big Brother’ Is Spelled GPS." The New York Times. 10 Sept. 2011. .
7  Liptak, Adam. "Court Case Asks If ‘Big Brother’ Is Spelled GPS." The New York Times. 10 Sept. 2011. .
8 United States v. Maynard, 615 F.3d 544, 555 (D.C. Cir. 2010)
9 Id. at 555
10 Id. at 556
11 Id. at 563
12 Id. at 555
13 Id. at 564
14 Id. at 568