April 04, 2012 Articles

U.S. v. Jones Leaves Important Digital Privacy Questions Unanswered

Just how reasonable is our expectation of privacy?

By Nicole Jacoby

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court in January 2012 ruled that police violated a suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights when they placed a global positioning system (GPS) tracking device on his car and monitored its movements for nearly a month without a valid search warrant. United States v. Jones, 564 U.S. ___ (2011); 2012 WL 171117 (Jan. 23, 2012). Although all of the justices agreed that police use of the GPS device for such an extended period constituted an impermissible constitutional search, their rationale for finding that law enforcement had overstepped its bounds diverged significantly. The majority opinion, drafted by Justice Scalia, found that the physical placement of the GPS device on the suspect’s car constituted a trespass under the Fourth Amendment. In contrast, the concurring opinion, written by Justice Alito, asserted that the suspect’s reasonable expectation of privacy was violated by the long-term monitoring of his car’s movements. The majority’s ruling means that the Court has left for another day some of the most difficult constitutional privacy decisions in a generation.

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