In a unanimous decision Monday, the Supreme Court effectively limited law enforcement’s use of GPS devices in tracking vehicles. But don’t feel too safe just yet. Because of a split in reasoning, the issue may not be fully resolved.
US v Jones
The U.S. v Jones case hinges on federal law enforcement agents attaching a GPS device to a Jeep owned by drug kingpin Antoine Jones and tracking his movement for four weeks. The ensuing trial landed Jones with a life sentence.
The Supreme Court’s decision reverses that conviction. Many will flinch that Jones is not behind bars, but the Supreme Court found it necessary because of the larger issue of basic privacy rights.
An invitation for Big Brother?
Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben, speaking for the government, argued that GPS surveillance is the same principle as traditional low-tech tracking and is simply taking advantage of available technology. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer disagreed:
“If you win this case, there is nothing to prevent the police or the government from monitoring 24 hours a day the public movement of every citizen of the United States… [That] sounds like ‘1984’.”
Split in reasoning
While the decision was unanimous, the reasoning was split 5 to 4. The majority of the Supreme Court Justices agreed that the cogent human rights violation was the physical placing of the GPS on Jones’ vehicle, and not the surveillance itself.
Justice Antonin Scalia summed up the position:
“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.”
Scalia disagreed that a warrant was always essential. He also insisted there was “no reason for rushing forward” in deciding on the other complex ethical and constitutional questions raised by the case.
The minority decision maintained that surveillance of any kind without properly obtaining a warrant is the real issue of the case. Without that, they maintained, law enforcement agencies would have free sway in who it wants to spy on, without justifying a cause. George Orwell and his dystopian world of “1984” was evoked six times during court arguments in November.
The Fourth Amendment
Some believe that the decision does not go far enough in protecting rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The debate is not over. The fight for the protection of human rights in the digital age goes on.