Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012).
This case addresses the following issue:
Does installing a GPS tracking device on a car constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment?
The Fourth Amendment prevents the government from searching the property of an individual where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, meaning the individual and society both expect privacy under such circumstances. Id. at 950. This case clarified that the previous common-law trespass test had not be replaced by this reasonable expectation of privacy approach, but added an additional consideration for determining if a search had occurred. Id. at 952. Thus, a search occurs if the government intrudes upon a reasonable expectation of privacy or if the government trespasses upon the property of an individual. Id.
The defendant in the underlying prosecution was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Id. at 948-49. Key evidence used in the prosecution was information about where the defendant had travelled in his personal vehicle and when he traveled there. Id. at 948. This information had been obtained from a GPS device which was attached to the bottom of the defendant’s vehicle while it was parked in a public parking lot. Id. at 948. The trial court had allowed this evidence to be admitted because there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in the location and movements of defendant’s jeep on public roadways and parking lots. Id.
The Court began by reframing the issue away from the information that was collected and onto how the information was obtained: “the Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information.” Id. at 949. Framed this way, the Court easily found a search had occurred, albeit under the older common-law trespass test. Id. at 952. This older test had not been replaced, as many lower courts had read from Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967), but instead had only been supplemented with the reasonable expectation of privacy test articulated in Katz. Id.
The Court distinguished two previous cases involving predecessor technology to the GPS device used here. Id. at 951-52. In these cases, “beepers” which could be tracked by the government were placed in barrels. Id. The key distinction between these cases and the present matter was when the installation had occurred—and that the ten- owner had consented. Id. at 952. In the previous cases, the barrels were installed while in the possession of third-parties and the defendants had “accepted the container[s] as [they] came…beeper[s] and all.” Id. Here, the trespass occurred while the vehicle was in the defendant’s possession, and because he had not consented, such activity was a trespass. Id.
The fact that previous decisions of the Court showed the information gathered was without a reasonable expectation of privacy did not matter, because the taint the information suffered from began at the point of its collection: the trespass. Id. at 952-53. Essentially, the police could have collected the same information—the location of defendant’s vehicle—by “tailing” the defendant for an extended period of time without violating the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 953. However, the trespass poisoned all that followed from the trespass, including the seemingly permissible information gathered. Id.