Five Answers and Three Questions after United States v. Jones (2012), the Fourth Amendment 'GPS Case'
30 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2012
Date Written: March 28, 2012
One of the United States Supreme Court’s “high profile” cases this Term was “the GPS case,” United States v. Jones, which gained attention beyond legal circles to a wide variety of mainstream and popular media sources, both in print and online. When the decision was announced in January 2012, though, nearly everyone was left underwhelmed by the Court’s resolution of the case, at least compared to the anticipation beforehand. In one respect, at least, the Court was unanimous and clear: the defendant’s argument prevailed, and the Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment applied to what the police had done on the facts of the case. Other than that, however, the Court did not provide very much guidance about the Fourth Amendment implications of GPS surveillance of criminal suspects – or, more broadly, the authority of the government in general to maintain surveillance of the public movements of people in everyday life. The lack of clarity was made particularly acute because the underlying reasoning beneath the three opinions reveals a Court seemingly intent on avoiding the complex and difficult issues of Fourth Amendment rights in a digital, internet-interconnected age and putting off the tough judgment calls for another case another day. As is often true of the Court’s decisions, though, the reality is more nuanced than initial appearances might seem to indicate. While the opinions in Jones leave open several significant questions for resolution in future cases, they actually do provide answers to a number of subsidiary questions. Until those cases come before the Court, it is important not to lose sight of the answers the Court did provide in Jones, both for resolving cases in the lower courts in the meantime and for considering how the justices might approach those later cases when the day arrives. Consequently, it is worth taking the time to carefully consider not only the questions the Jones decision leaves open, but also the ones it answers. The narrowness of Jones may seem to make it an insignificant way station on the road to more definitive rulings – but it turns out there may be more to Jones after all.
Keywords: Fourth Amendment, search and seizure, GPS, United States v Jones, Supreme Court
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