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United States v. Jones (2012)

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United States v. Antoine Jones
Argued November 8, 2011
Decided January 23, 2012
Full case nameUnited States v. Antoine Jones
Docket no.10-1259
Citations565 U.S. 400 (more)
132 S. Ct. 945; 181 L. Ed. 2d 911; 2012 U.S. LEXIS 1063; 80 U.S.L.W. 4125
ArgumentOral argument
Case history
PriorMotion to suppress evidence denied, 451 F. Supp. 2d 71 (D.D.C. 2012); motion for reconsideration denied, 511 F. Supp. 2d 74 (D.D.C. 2007); reversed sub nom. United States v. Maynard, 615 F.3d 544 (D.C. Cir. 2010); rehearing en banc denied, 625 F.3d 766 (2010); certiorari granted, 564 U.S. 1036 (2011).
The attachment of the GPS device to a vehicle by the police, and its use to monitor the vehicle's movements, constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment and requires a warrant.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Sonia Sotomayor · Elena Kagan
Case opinions
MajorityScalia, joined by Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, Sotomayor
ConcurrenceAlito, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. IV

United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the court held that installing a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking device on a vehicle and using the device to monitor the vehicle's movements constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.[1]

In 2004 Antoine Jones was suspected by police in the District of Columbia of drug trafficking. Investigators asked for and received a warrant to attach a GPS tracking device to the underside of Jones's car but then exceeded the warrant's scope in both geography and length of time. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that this was a search under the Fourth Amendment, although they were split 5-4 as to the fundamental reasons behind that conclusion. The majority held that by physically installing the GPS device on Jones's car, the police had committed a trespass against his "personal effects", This trespass, in an attempt to obtain information, constituted a search per se.[1]


Police investigation and criminal trial[edit]

Antoine Jones owned a nightclub in the District of Columbia; Lawrence Maynard managed the club. In 2004, a joint Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Metropolitan Police Department task force began investigating Jones and Maynard for narcotics violations.[2] During the course of the investigation, police installed a Global Positioning System (GPS) device on Jones's wife's Jeep Grand Cherokee.[3] They had received a valid warrant from a judge, but that warrant only covered the District of Columbia and only for a limited time period.[4] The GPS device tracked the vehicle's movements 24 hours a day for four weeks, and in the states surrounding the District of Columbia.[5] This exceeded both the time limit and the geographic react of the original warrant.[4] The FBI arrested Jones under conspiracy to distribute narcotics charges in late 2005, based on data about the locations to which the vehicle was tracked, and he filed a motion to suppress the GPS data.[6]

Jones was tried in criminal court in late 2006, and a federal jury deadlocked on the conspiracy charge and acquitted him of multiple other counts. The government retried Jones, and in early 2008 the jury returned a guilty verdict on one count of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine and 50 or more grams of cocaine base.[7] He was sentenced to life in prison.[8]


Jones argued that his criminal conviction should be overturned because the use of the GPS tracker violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure.[9] In 2010, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with Jones and overturned his conviction, holding that the police action was a search because it violated Jones's "reasonable expectation of privacy."[10][11] The D.C. Circuit then denied prosecutors' petition for rehearing en banc.[12]

The Circuit Court's decision was the subject of significant legal debate.[13][14] In 2007, Judge Richard Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit had reached the opposite conclusion on whether GPS tracking by police was a search under the Fourth Amendment.[15]

Federal prosecutors appealed the Circuit Court decision. In June 2011, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve two questions The first question was "Whether the warrantless use of a tracking device on respondent's vehicle to monitor its movements on public streets violated the Fourth Amendment." The second question was "Whether the government violated respondent's Fourth Amendment rights by installing the GPS tracking device on his vehicle without a valid warrant and without his consent."[6]

Oral argument[edit]

Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben[16] began his argument on behalf of federal prosecutors by noting that information that is visible to anyone in the public, such as a driver's movements on public roads, is not protected by the Fourth Amendment.[17] Dreeben cited United States v. Knotts (1983) as an example in which police were allowed to use a device known as a "beeper" that enabled tracking a car from a short distance away.[17] Chief Justice John Roberts distinguished the present case from Knotts, saying that using a beeper still took "a lot of work" whereas a GPS device allows the police to "sit back in the station ... and push a button whenever they want to find out where the car is."[18]

Justice Antonin Scalia then directed the discussion to whether installing the device was an unreasonable search. Scalia argued that "when that device is installed against the will of the owner of the car on the car, that is unquestionably a trespass and thereby rendering the owner of the car not secure in his effects... against an unreasonable search and seizure."[19] Dreeben argued that it may have been a trespass by police, but in the 1984 precedent United States v. Karo (a case involving a similar trespass) the Supreme Court ruled that it "made no difference because the purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to protect privacy interests and meaningful interference [with possessions], not to cover all technical trespasses."[20]

Justice Samuel Alito stated that people's use of technology is changing what the expectation of privacy is for the courts. "You know, I don't know what society expects and I think it's changing. Technology is changing people's expectations of privacy. Suppose we look forward 10 years, and maybe 10 years from now 90 percent of the population will be using social networking sites and they will have on average 500 friends and they will have allowed their friends to monitor their location 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, through the use of their cell phones. Then — what would the expectation of privacy be then?"[21]

Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that "What motivated the Fourth Amendment historically was the disapproval, the outrage, that our Founding Fathers experienced with general warrants that permitted police indiscriminately to investigate just on the basis of suspicion, not probable cause, and to invade every possession that the individual had in search of a crime." She then asked, "How is this different?"[22]

Opinion of the Court[edit]

Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the opinion of the 5-4 majority.

On January 23, 2012, the Supreme Court held 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'" under the Fourth Amendment.[23][24][25] Some journalists and commentators interpreted this ruling as a requirement that all GPS data surveillance requires a search warrant,[26] but this ruling was narrower and applied only to the circumstances of the police investigation of Jones, particularly regarding location data when driving a vehicle.

It can be said that all nine justices unanimously considered the police's actions in Jones to be unconstitutional. Importantly, however, they were split 5-4 on the reasoning for that conclusion. Furthermore, the justices were of three different opinions with respect to the breadth of the judgment.[27]

Majority opinion[edit]

Justice Antonin Scalia authored the majority opinion. He cited a line of cases dating as far back as 1886 to argue that a physical intrusion, or trespass, into a constitutionally-protected area – in an attempt to find something or to obtain information – was the basis, historically, for determining whether a "search" had occurred under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.[28] Scalia conceded that in the years following Katz v. United States (1967) – in which electronic eavesdropping on a public telephone booth was held to be a search – the vast majority of search and seizure case law had shifted away from that approach founded on property rights, and towards an approach based on a person's "expectation of privacy".[29] However, he cited a number of post-Katz cases including Alderman v. United States[30] and Soldal v. Cook County[31] to argue that the trespassory approach had not been abandoned by the Court.[32] In response to criticisms within Alito's concurrence, Scalia emphasized that the Fourth Amendment must provide, at a minimum, the level of protection as it did when it was adopted. Furthermore, a trespassory test need not exclude a test of the expectation of privacy, which may be appropriate to consider in situations where there was no governmental trespass.[33]

In the present case, the Court concluded that government's installation of a GPS device onto the defendant's car (his "personal effects") was a trespass that was purposed to obtain information, so it was a search under the Fourth Amendment.[1] Having reached the conclusion that this was a search under the Fourth Amendment, the Court declined to examine whether any exception exists that would render the search "reasonable", because the government had failed to advance that theory in the lower courts.[34][35]

Also left unanswered was the broader question surrounding the privacy implications of a warrantless use of GPS data absent a physical intrusion – as might occur, for example, with the electronic collection of GPS data from wireless service providers or factory-installed vehicle tracking and navigation services.[27] The Court left these matters to be decided in some future case, saying, "It may be that achieving the same result through electronic means, without an accompanying trespass, is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, but the present case does not require us to answer that question."[36]

Concurring opinions[edit]

Justice Sotomayor[edit]

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the sole voice against warrantless GPS surveillance, whether long- or short-term, both on the basis of property and privacy rights.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the fifth justice to concur with Scalia's opinion, making hers the decisive vote.[37] "As the majority's opinion makes clear", she noted, "Katz's reasonable-expectation-of-privacy test augmented, but did not displace or diminish, the common-law trespassory test that preceded it".[38] She agreed with Alito's expectation of privacy reasoning with respect to long-term surveillance,[39] but she went a step further by also disputing the constitutionality of warrantless short-term GPS surveillance. Even during short-term monitoring, she reasoned, GPS surveillance can precisely record an individual's every movement, and hence can reveal completely private destinations, like "trips to the psychiatrist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club, the criminal defense attorney, the by-the-hour motel, the union meeting, the mosque, synagogue or church, the gay bar and on and on."[39] Sotomayor added:

People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers, the URLS that they visit and the e-mail addresses with which they correspond to their Internet service providers, and the books, groceries and medications they purchase to online retailers. [...] I would not assume that all information voluntarily disclosed to some member of the public for a limited purpose is, for that reason alone, disentitled to Fourth Amendment protection.[40]

Sotomayor distinguished the present case from Knotts, reminding that Knotts suggested that a different principle might apply to situations in which every a person's movement was completely monitored for 24 hours.[38]

Justice Alito[edit]

Justice Samuel Alito and three others concurred, but only on the basis of privacy rights, and only against long-term GPS surveillance.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote with respect to privacy: "short-term monitoring of a person’s movements on public streets accords with expectations of privacy" but "the use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy."[41] Alito argued against the majority's reliance on trespass under modern circumstances. Specifically, he argued that the common law property-based analysis of a "search" under the Fourth Amendment did not apply to such electronic situations as the one that occurred in this case.[42] He further argued that following the doctrinal changes in Katz, a technical trespass leading to the gathering of evidence was "neither necessary nor sufficient to establish a constitutional violation".[43][44] In his concurring opinion Alito outlined that long-term surveillance can reveal everything about a person:

Prolonged surveillance reveals types of information not revealed by short-term surveillance, such as what a person does repeatedly, what he does not do, and what he does ensemble. These types of information can each reveal more about a person than does any individual trip viewed in isolation. [...] A person who knows all of another's travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups – and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.[45]

Minority opinions[edit]

Following the privacy-based approach most commonly used post-Katz, the four-justice minority were instead of the opinion that the continuous monitoring of every single movement of an individual's car for 28 days violated a "reasonable expectation of privacy", and thus constituted a search. Alito explained that before GPS and similar electronic technology, month-long surveillance of an individual's every move would have been exceptionally demanding and costly, requiring a tremendous amount of resources and people. As a result, society's expectations were, and still are, that such complete and long-term surveillance would not be undertaken, and that an individual would not think it could occur to him or her.[46]

With regard to continuous monitoring for a short period, the minority relied on the Knotts precedent and decline to find a violation of the expectation of privacy.[46] In Knotts, a short-distance signal beeper in the defendant's car was tracked during a single trip for less than a day. The Knotts Court held that a person traveling on public roads has no expectation of privacy in his movements, because the vehicle's starting point, direction, stops, or final destination could be seen by anyone else on the road.[47]

Impact and subsequent developments[edit]

Walter E. Dellinger III, the former U.S. Solicitor General and the attorney who represented Jones, said the decision was "a signal event in Fourth Amendment history."[3] He also said the decision made it more risky for law enforcement to use a GPS tracking device without a warrant.[48] FBI director Robert Mueller testified in 2013 that the Jones decision had limited the Bureau's surveillance capabilities.[49]

Criminal defense attorneys and civil libertarians such as Virginia Sloan of the Constitution Project praised the ruling for protecting Fourth Amendment rights against government intrusion through modern technology.[48] The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed an amicus brief arguing that warrantless GPS tracking violates reasonable expectations of privacy, praised Sotomayor's concurrence for raising concerns that existing Fourth Amendment precedents do not reflect the realities of modern technology.[50]

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the district court to determine whether Jones's criminal conviction could be restored based on the other evidence collected, and without that evidence ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. During the original investigation, the police obtained cell site location data via a process enabled by the Stored Communications Act.[51] Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle ruled in late 2012 that the government could use the cell site data against Jones.[52][53] A new criminal trial began in early 2013[54] after Jones rejected a plea bargain of 15 to 22 years in prison.[55] In March 2013, a mistrial was declared with the jury evenly split.[56] The Government planned for a fourth trial[57][58] but in May 2013 Jones accepted a plea bargain of 15 years with credit for time served.[59][60]

In October 2013, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit addressed the unanswered question of whether warrantless use of GPS devices would be reasonable — and thus lawful — under the Fourth Amendment if police have probable cause to justify the search.[61] United States v. Katzin was the first relevant appeals court ruling in the wake of Jones to address this topic. The court held that a warrant was indeed required to deploy GPS tracking devices, and further, that none of the narrow exceptions to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement (e.g. exigent circumstances) were applicable.[62][63]


  1. ^ a b c US v. Jones, 565 US 400 (2012).
  2. ^ United States v. Maynard, 615 F.3d 544, 549 (D.C. Cir. 2010) ("Jones owned and Maynard managed the "Levels" nightclub in the District of Columbia. In 2004 an FBI Metropolitan Police Department Safe Streets Task Force began investigating the two for narcotics violations.").
  3. ^ a b Bravin, Jess, "Justices Rein In Police on GPS Trackers", The Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2012. Retrieved 2012-01-24.
  4. ^ a b Maynard, 615 F.3d at 566 ("The police had obtained a warrant to install the GPS device in D.C. only, but it had expired before they installed it — which they did in Maryland.")
  5. ^ Maynard, 615 F.3d at 555 ("...tracking [Jones's] movements 24 hours a day for four weeks (sic) with a GPS device [the police] had installed on his Jeep...")
  6. ^ a b United States v. Jones, Docket, Certiorari granted (June 27, 2011).
  7. ^ Maynard, 615 F.3d at 549 ("the Government filed another superseding indictment charging Jones, Maynard, and a few co-defendants with a single count of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine and 50 or more grams of cocaine base. A joint trial of Jones and Maynard began in November 2007 and ended in January 2008, when the jury found them both guilty.")
  8. ^ United States v. Jones, Petition for a Writ of Certiorari p. 2, "respondent was convicted of conspiracy to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and 50 or more grams of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. 841 and 846. The district court sentenced respondent to ."
  9. ^ Maynard, 615 F.3d at 555 ("Jones argues his conviction should be overturned because the police violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches by tracking his movements 24 hours a day for four weeks with a GPS device they had installed on his Jeep without a valid warrant.")
  10. ^ Maynard, 615 F.3d at 555 ("As explained below, we hold Knotts does not govern this case and the police action was a search because it defeated Jones‘s reasonable expectation of privacy.")
  11. ^ Recent Case: D.C. Circuit Deems Warrantless Use of GPS Device an Unreasonable Search, 124 Harv. L. Rev. 827 (2011).
  12. ^ The Supreme Court, 2011 Term — Leading Cases, 126 Harv. L. Rev. 226 (2012).
  13. ^ Justin P. Webb, Cybercrime Review (November 29, 2012). "Highlighted Paper: Orin Kerr, The Mosaic Theory of the Fourth Amendment".
  14. ^ Justin P. Webb (December 1, 2011). "Carving Out Notions of Privacy: The Impact of GPS Tracking and Why Maynard is a Move in the Right Direction". Marquette Law Review. 95 (2): 751.
  15. ^ Recent Case: Seventh Circuit Holds That GPS Tracking is Not a Search, 120 Harv. L. Rev. 2230 (2007).
  16. ^ United States v. Jones (Oral Argument Transcript) p. 1.
  17. ^ a b United States v. Jones (Oral Argument Transcript) p. 3.
  18. ^ United States v. Jones (Oral Argument Transcript) p. 4.
  19. ^ United States v. Jones (Oral Argument Transcript) p. 7.
  20. ^ United States v. Jones (Oral Argument Transcript) p. 8.
  21. ^ United States v. Jones (Oral Argument Transcript) p. 44.
  22. ^ United States v. Jones (Oral Argument Transcript) p. 20.
  23. ^ Jones, 565 U.S. at 404.
  24. ^ Romm, Tony (23 July 2012). "Supreme Court: GPS location tracking qualifies as search". Retrieved 14 July 2012.
  25. ^ Liptak, Adam (23 January 2013). "Justices Say GPS Tracker Violated Privacy Rights". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 October 2013.
  26. ^ Bill Mears (January 23, 2012). "Justices rule against police, say GPS surveillance requires search warrant". CNN.
  27. ^ a b Goldstein, Tom (30 January 2012). "Why Jones is still less of a pro-privacy decision than most thought". SCOTUSblog. Retrieved 21 September 2012.
  28. ^ Jones, 565 U.S. at 405.
  29. ^ Jones, 565 U.S. at 405-06.
  30. ^ Alderman v. United States, 394 U.S. 165, 180 (1969). "[W]e [do not] believe that Katz, by holding that the Fourth Amendment protects persons and their private conversations, was intended to withdraw any of the protection which the Amendment extends to the home . . . ."
  31. ^ Soldal v. Cook County, 506 U.S. 56, 64 (1992). "[Katz established that] property rights are not the sole measure of Fourth Amendment violations. . . . [it did not] snuf[f] out the previously recognized protection for property."
  32. ^ Jones, 565 U.S. at 407-08.
  33. ^ Jones, 565 U.S. at 411-12.
  34. ^ Kravets, David (23 January 2012). "Supreme Court Court Rejects Willy-Nilly GPS Tracking". Retrieved 14 July 2012.
  35. ^ Kerr, Orin (23 January 2012). "What Jones Does Not Hold". The Volokh Conspiracy. Retrieved 14 July 2012.
  36. ^ Jones, 565 U.S. at 412.
  37. ^ Jones, 565 U.S. at 413 (Sotomayor, J., concurring).
  38. ^ a b Jones, 565 U.S. at 414 (Sotomayor, J., concurring).
  39. ^ a b Jones, 565 U.S. at 415 (Sotomayor, J., concurring).
  40. ^ Jones, 565 U.S. at 417 (Sotomayor, J., concurring).
  41. ^ Jones, 565 U.S. at 430 (Alito, J., concurring).
  42. ^ Jones, 565 U.S. at 419-20 (Alito, J., concurring).
  43. ^ Jones, 565 U.S. at 423 (Alito, J., concurring, quoting United States v. Karo, 468 U.S. 705, 713 (1984)).
  44. ^ Justice Scalia countered this quote from Karo (that "[trespass is] neither necessary nor sufficient...") by calling it "irrelevant" – Karo contemplated a seizure, not a search, and trespass has no bearing on the constitutionality of a seizure. Jones, 565 U.S. at 408, n.5.
  45. ^ Maynard, 615 F.3d at 562; U.S. v. Jones, 565 U.S. __, (2012), Alito, J., concurring.
  46. ^ a b United States v Jones (Opinion) Alito's concurrence, p. 13.
  47. ^ United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276, 282 (1983).
  48. ^ a b Biskupic, Joan (January 24, 2012). "Supreme Court rules warrant needed for GPS tracking". USA Today. Retrieved November 21, 2013.
  49. ^ Johnson, Carrie (March 21, 2012). "FBI Still Struggling With Supreme Court's GPS Ruling". NPR. Retrieved November 20, 2013.
  50. ^ "US v. Jones". Electronic Frontier Foundation. July 2011. Retrieved November 27, 2013.
  51. ^ Jeffrey Brown, Cybercrime Review (April 1, 2012). "Jones II: This time, the government seeks to use cell site location information".
  52. ^ Mike Scarcella (17 December 2012). "Judge Rules for DOJ in Dispute Over Cell Tower Data". Legal Times Blog.
  53. ^ The Supreme Court's 2018 decision in Carpenter vs. United States held that Police must obtain a search warrant prior to obtaining cellular location information.
  54. ^ Zapotosky, Matt (25 January 2013). "Accused drug dealer, representing himself, hears prosecutors open their case". The Washington Post.
  55. ^ Marimow, Ann (16 January 2013). "Suspected D.C. drug kingpin offered plea deal". The Washington Post.
  56. ^ Frommer, Frederic (4 March 2013). "Mistrial declared in 3rd trial of drug conspiracy". U.S. News & World Report. Associated Press.
  57. ^ Marimow, Ann (5 March 2013). "Judge declares mistrial in area drug case". The Washington Post. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
  58. ^ "Judge Declares Mistrial in Drug Case at Center of Landmark Supreme Court Ruling". Legal Times Blog. 4 March 2013. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
  59. ^ "Antoine Jones pleads guilty, accepts 15 years sentence". WJLA-TV. 1 May 2013. Retrieved 20 May 2013.
  60. ^ Anderson, Nick (1 May 2013). "Former DC Nightclub owner Antoine Jones sentenced on drug charge". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 30 June 2013. Retrieved 20 May 2013.
  61. ^ United States v. Katzin, 12-2548 (3d Cir. 2013)., quoting United States v Jones (Opinion) Majority p. 5.
  62. ^ Zetter, Kim (October 22, 2013). "Court Rules Probable-Cause Warrant Required for GPS Trackers". Retrieved November 26, 2013.
  63. ^ Kemp, David S. "The Warrant Requirement for GPS Tracking Devices". Verdict. Justia. Retrieved November 26, 2013.

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