🚗 🚙 Turn your trusty old car into trustworthy journalism Learn more

Supreme Court rules in closely watched GPS case

Molly Wood Jan 24, 2012

The Supreme Court has issued a unanimous ruling in a case that has been watched closely by privacy advocates. United States v. Jones dealt with Washington, D.C., resident Antoine Jones, who was suspected of trafficking in drugs. Authorities attached a GPS device to Jones’ car, ultimately tracing his movements to a suburban house used to stash drugs. The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a search on someone’s car is a search of their property and therefore a warrant should be required. A warrant had been issued for Jones but it didn’t apply in Maryland and information on his travels in that state was collected. By tracking Jones without a warrant, the Court says the government violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. 

The Court was unanimous in its ruling, but was split 5-4 in exactly how the Fourth Amendment applies in this situation. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority in the case. “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 said. “The government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information.”

“Justice Scalia relied on a historical argument that the police were trespassing on the car by placing the GPS device on the car’s undercarriage,” says Bill McGeveran, law professor at the University of Minnesota. “The car is private property and they touched it.”

Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the minority and said, “The court’s reasoning largely disregards what is really important (the use of a GPS for the purpose of long-term tracking) and instead attaches great significance to something that most would view as relatively minor (attaching to the bottom of a car a small, light object that does not interfere in any way with the car’s operation).” 

“Justice Alito argued that the result should be the same but that it should be based on more open textured reasoning about people’s expectation of privacy,” says McGeveran, “and you don’t expect a GPS device to be tracking your movements for weeks.”

But in the long run, it may be the opinion of another justice that has the most lasting effect on privacy for those of us just dinking around on the computer. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the newest members of the court, says that the case compels us to re-examine the rules that have been guiding privacy case law for a long time. And McGeveran says, “When Supreme Court justices say that they might discard lots of old precedent, it’s a pretty big deal.

Sotomayor mentioned what’s called the Third Party Doctrine. “The Third Party Doctrine is this notion that if I surrender any sort of information to a third party, I abandon all expectations that that third party won’t turn it over to the government,” says Jeffrey Rosen, professor at George Washington University School of Law.

So a third party might be Google and once you search for something there, your search is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Says Rosen, “That’s a very counter-intuitive doctrine. When the court introduced it in cases involving financial privacy, Congress overturned those decisions, saying that  most people don’t expect that when they turn their deposit information over to the bank, the bank will necessarily share it with the government, but nevertheless, the Third Party Doctrine remains the gravest threat to privacy in an age when most of our private papers are stored not in our desk drawers, as at the time of the framing, but instead on distributed servers owned by Google and Yahoo! in the digital cloud, and that’s why unless the court revisits the Third Party Doctrine, then we’ll have less privacy today than the framers did.

Also in today’s program, Star Wars Uncut. It’s a nerdtacular re-creation of the first Star Wars movie. People signed up online and re-made Star Wars in 15-second intervals. 

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.