Supreme Court Throws Out Conviction Based on Warrantless GPS Monitoring by Blue LLP

Posted on 25 Jan 2012

Supreme Court Throws Out Conviction Based on Warrantless GPS Monitoring

Supreme Court rules that a GPS tracking device placed on a car is a search.

The US Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Jones, No. 10-1259, has now been covered extensively in most major news outlets, and professional commentators have offered extremely helpful insight into the decision's future application.

The nuts and bolts of the case are as follows. The Government obtained a search warrant that allowed it to install a GPS tracking device on a Jeep that was registered to the wife of a suspected drug dealer. The warrant required the device to be installed in the District of Columbia within 10 days. Investigators, however, did not install the device until the 11th day in Maryland. They did so by attaching the monitor to the Jeep's undercarriage. The Government tracked the Jeep's movement for 28 days, and subsequently indicted the defendant on drug trafficking and conspiracy charges that included conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and 50 grams or more of cocaine base, all in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841 and 846.

The Government tried the case twice, with the first trial resulting in a hung jury. The second trial, however, resulted in a conviction, and the defendant was sentenced to life in prison. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction because it was based on evidence obtained during a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment (recall that the attachment of the GPS device did not comply with the warrant).  The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the Court of Appeals.  In so doing, the plurality (i.e., not quite a majority) held that the police's physical installation of the device on the Jeep constitutes a "search."  The plurality's analysis largely focuses on how the Government's physical intrusion on private property undoubtedly would have been considered a "search" as that term was used in the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.