SCOTUS Rules That GPS Tracking Is a 'Search'


Today the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that tracking a suspect's car by attaching a GPS device to it amounts to a "search" under the Fourth Amendment. The case involved a Washington, D.C., nightclub owner, Antoine Jones, who was convicted of cocaine trafficking and sentenced to life in prison based largely on information police obtained through GPS tracking of his Jeep. In 2010 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned Jones' conviction, ruling that the warrantless tracking violated the Fourth Amendment's ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures." Upholding that decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that the physical intrusion on Jones' car required to attach the tracking device represented the sort of trespass that was meant to be covered by the Fourth Amendment, which applies to people's "effects" as well as their homes. The majority, in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia that was joined by four other justices (John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Sonia Sotomayor), said it was therefore unnecessary to address the question of whether Jones had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" regarding his public movements. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion, joined by three other justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan), that said Jones did have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the information collected via GPS tracking of his car:

Relatively short-term monitoring of a person's movements on public streets accords with expectations of privacy that our society has recognized as reasonable….But the use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy. For such offenses, society's expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others would not—and indeed, in the main, simply could not—secretly monitor and catalogue every single movement of an individual's car for a very long period/ In this case, for four weeks, law enforcement agents tracked every movement that [Jones] made in the vehicle he was driving. We need not identify with precisionthe point at which the tracking of this vehicle became a search, for the line was surely crossed before the 4-week mark.

discussed the oral argument in the case, U.S. v. Jones, in November. More on GPS tracking here. The decision is here (PDF).

NEXT: Katherine Mangu-Ward on the 21st Century Pioneers Who Want to Take You into Space

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. So, they’ll just focus the satellites on you.

    1. I think satellite imagery, especially in the visible light range, is constitutional without a warrant.

      I think the question comes down to use of infrared detection and other more intrusive means of surveillance.

      1. SCOTUS has already rules infrared an illegal search.

        1. And what about surveillance in the visible light range?

          I can’t see any reasonable expectation of privacy. One might could argue that it allows for the surveillance of activities, say, in someone’s backyard that would be obstructed from normal street surveillance.

          Do people have protection from the line of sight 90 degrees to the horizon?

          1. I think the deal is that normal people can fly planes and look in your backyard – so the government can fly a plane and look in your backyard.

            Infrared cameras – and satellites – aren’t something the average person has(yet), so the government can’t use them without a warrant.

            Drones seem to fall in the middle. I expect that, after the upcoming ‘warrantless sniff’ case, drones will be the next big privacy case before the courts.

            There’s also the question of license plate scanners. AFAIK, departments are using them, but they’re not collecting the detections in a database yet(I think a private company is, but not LE).

            1. What normal people do you know of who fly over your backyard to look into it? I don’t know of anyone who has ever done this except a policeman. People do have a reasonable expectation of privacy over what’s in their backyard, that’s why they put fences up.

              1. Reporters, see “Streisand Effect”

                Also used to know this chick who lived in the approach path to an airport. She liked to sunbathe nude and listen to the pilots go apeshit over the scanner.

                Etc, etc, etc…

                You need to get out more, or meet better people, or something.

              2. Well, first off it doesn’t matter who I know or what I think. The position I stated is that of the court.

                That said – have you ever heard of google maps? Zoom in as far as you can go and – poof! – aerial photography of your backyard provided by a private citizen(or a group of them formed into a corporation).

                Are you saying you’ve never looked into people’s backyards while taking off/landing on a commercial jet? You don’t think private pilots look down every once and a while? Hell, I would – with binoculars.

                1. Google maps is a static image of a particular point in time and has nothing to do with attaching an electronic tracking device to a person’s car to follow him around for weeks and weeks.

            2. You could get a cheap near-IR camera and a good RC helicopter for a couple grand, maybe less. Then you could fly it over the police station, just to see what happens…

            3. Flying Drone Can Crack Wi-Fi Networks, Snoop On Cell Phones
              Who Is Flying Unmanned Aircraft in the U.S.?
              Are Drones Watching You?

              1. IACP 2010: Airborne support for law enforcement that won’t break the bank

          2. “might could”? Are you from Georgia?

        2. and I’m sure the SCOTUS ruling prevents law enforcement from creating neat little workarounds. Once you are arrested, the system is stacked mightily against you.

      2. And besides, “the satellites” don’t work like they do in movies/ TV where they track someone for hours on end with a spy satellite “hovering” directly overhead. Simply put, the satellites are moving too fast to focus on a specific target for more than a few minutes at a time. Movies/ TV are bullshit.

        1. That’s what we like you to think.

          1. Uh, no. Can’t cheat the laws of physics. Satellites in low earth orbit are inherently fast-moving relative to a fixed point on the earth. “Hovering” is movie script BS.

            For a Satellite to “hover” it would have to be in geosynchronous orbit, which is 23,000 miles up.

            1. You could do rapid hand-offs between satellites… in theory…

            2. Damn, you’ve just cast doubt on the Christmas story.

              If the beacon called “Star of Bethlehem” was hovering 23,000 miles up, how could the wise men, lacking modern instruments, tell it was exactly over Bethlehem?

        2. That’s true for satellites. Not so true for drones, blimps, police aircraft, and the thousands of security cameras in your general vacinity.

  2. This is a good decision, and a good sign that on better facts it would have extended even further (four of them wanted to really push “expectation of privacy” doctrine).

    1. It’s hard to see how the expectation of privacy argument holds water. It essentially boils down to technophobia.

      I mean, you could use the same argument to say that police shouldn’t be allowed to travel in cars while on duty since it allows each of them to cover a wider territory than they could have done in 1789.

      The “seizure” argument of the majority is more solid.

      1. I don’t see it as terribly hard to see the expectation of privacy argument. It’s on thing when you’re out driving on a public road or parked in a public place. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy as to your whereabouts when you’re out there in public and anyone can see you in your car. It’s another thing for someone to be remotely tracking your movements, 24/7 for week after week after week – they’ll know when you’re parked, when you’re moving, where you are, where you’re heading, how fast, etc. And this includes when your car is parked behind your house or at anyone else’s house. That is much more intrusive than the police following you around.

        But yes, it is more of a qualitative than quantitative or substantive argument, and the “trespass” argument is neater – the police are using your own personal property (i.e., your “effects”) without your consent or permission, against you, to gather evidence to use to convict you.

        1. But keep in mind GPS only works if you have an unobstructed line of sight to 3 satellites. Thus, it doesn’t make it possible for the popos to track you indoors or under a roof. Anyplace they can get a GPS reading on you, they could have tracked you with a helicopter or survey satellite in the old days.

          1. They could, can, and do track you from a helicopter – at significant cost to the department, meaning it is only used for crimes in progress.

            GPS tracking is cheap – I bet it costs them less than $1k to track you for months.

            What I’d like to know is what is stopping the cops from just buying your location data from facebook, your cell co., or any of the other tracking firms that are springing up.

          2. But they’re not tracking you, they’re tracking a piece of your private property, which they cannot interfere with unless they get a warrant.

            Now if they attached a gps tracker on a suspect by brushing past them in a crowded public space, I’d be willing to bet the case would have been different.

            1. So you think that, even though they just ruled unanimously that placing GPS on a car is NOT okay, placing a GPS tracker on the person would be okay?

              If my skin isn’t part of my effects in the same way as my car is (legally speaking), then we are truly fucked.

              1. Oh, hell no. I’m just saying the case would have been different.

          3. GPS needs four satellites for a reliable position.

          4. Four satellite are required to produce a solution (lat, long, alt, time). Five are needed to detect an erroneous signal if one satellite is not functioning properly. Six are required to isolate and exclude bad satellite signals.

            1. Anything above 4 satellites is just decreasing your location error, which doesn’t really matter. You don’t need centimeter precision to track a vehicle. 10 meter precision will do in the city. 100 meter precision will do in rural areas.

              1. The standard positioning service provides accuracy within a 100 meters 90% of the time. The error the other 10% of the time is unbounded.

                1. Right, because nobody within 100 yards of where a crime committed could be innocent in the country.

                  I know it sounds dickish the way I put it, but that distance should still be considered unreliable, IMO.

      2. “”It’s hard to see how the expectation of privacy argument holds water. It essentially boils down to technophobia.””

        The technology wasn’t the issue so there is no technophobia here.

        1. Actually it is the issue.

          24/7 tracking was technically possible with the old “tailing” methods, as well as aircraft and satellite surveillance. The technology just makes it cheaper.

          1. “”Actually it is the issue.””

            Not in this case.

          2. 24/7 tracking was technically possible with the old “tailing” methods, as well as aircraft and satellite surveillance. The technology just makes it cheaper.

            Again, requiring eyes-on.

      3. It’s hard to see how the expectation of privacy argument holds water. It essentially boils down to technophobia.

        It’s not technophobia… at all.

        And you prove that with this statement:

        I mean, you could use the same argument to say that police shouldn’t be allowed to travel in cars while on duty since it allows each of them to cover a wider territory than they could have done in 1789.

        The point that you’re missing is that with the car or the Hansom, it requires the officer keep ‘eyes on’ for the duration of the surveillance.

        The addition of the GPS allows them to track you 24/7/365, ‘eyes off’ by a computer which logs your every movement– pertinent to the case or not– into a database.

        I don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy from people seeing my car. I do have a reasonable expectation that someone hasn’t attached something to my car and can now view my movements from the comfort of his mother’s basement.

        It’s both a violation of privacy and a seizure argument.

      4. There’s a pretty simple way to settle this: if I can do it to the cops, they can do it to me. Can I put a GPS tracker on a cop car, or a cop’s personal car? Can I look inside a cop station or cop home with my thermal or terawave imager? Can I sit outside their station or home and photograph every visitor?

        If I’d need a warrant to do any of those, so would they.

        1. +1. That should be the standard.

    2. Good decision because the “no trespass” argument, while supported by common law, hasn’t really been used before and only adds to the existing “expectation of privacy” line (that is vulnerable for a number of reasons.)

      Multiple reasons to reach the correct result; the majority ruling doesn’t rule out expectation of privacy, just doesn’t depend on it.

  3. Why attach a tracking device when most people carry one in their pocket?

    1. Sotomayor’s concurrence addressed that and said the 3rd party doctrine may no longer apply in the digital age. To which I have to say, “It’s about damn time someone noticed this.”

      1. But Mo, she’s a liberal dirtbag so I’m sure the partisans will play dirty to keep her from getting her way. 😉

    2. I doubt it’s most people. But, yeah.

      1. Most people don’t carry a cell phone?

        1. I’m not sure if that’s even true, but most people certainly don’t have a GPS phone.

          1. The Wire lied to me!

            1. Free Avon!

            1. (Actually I’m not sure that the 91% figure is quite correct; I think from the fine print it might be the number of lines is equal to 91% of Americans, and some people have both work phones and personal phones.)

              1. But if they are talking 91% of all Americans, then it is a safe bet to assume that virtually all working-age adults have/have used a cell phone.

            2. 46% is not most people, you dope.

              /pedantic dick.

              1. If you’re going to be pedantic, you should at least be correct.

                I didn’t claim that most people had GPS enabled phones, I was simply providing some recent facts and polling.

                Even so, the facts I listed didn’t in any way claim that 46% of people had GPS enabled phones– some featurephones have GPS, but not everyone has a cell phone.

                1. fucking threading failure. That was meant as a response to sarcasmic.

                  1. 46% is not most people, you dope.

                    /pedantic dick.

                    I didn’t specify GPS telephone.

                    /double plus pedantic dick

          2. Most phones do have GPS location now, even the shitty 9.99 ones. Of course, triangulation still works too.

          3. Most phones do not have GPS, but the traditional way of tracking a cellular telephone is tower triangulation, which works on the same principles as GPS, except the “satellites” are towers in a fixed location. Exact tower position (coordinates) is even determined by GPS control.

            1. The accuracy of tower triangulation is pretty bad, somewhere on the order of 200 – 1000 meters. No court is going to buy evidence that can be off by a whole kilometer.

              1. It helps them find you, at any time you have a cell phone.

            2. IIRC, they do have to get a warrent for cell phone triangulation too, so it makes sense they should have to have one fro GPS as well, from a technology POV.

              1. That would be from a personal property point of view.

    3. You need a warrant for those too.

  4. onetime at band camp, I carried a GPS in my pocket.

  5. Ugh, if there is one thing these clowns can be trusted to do it is give criminals more rights! How is this any different than following people around?

    1. Following people around doesn’t involve tampering with their property?

    2. You can follow someone into their garage without a warrant in your opinion?

    3. Pretty sure non-criminals have rights too, bud.

      1. Not to a law and order conservative, they don’t. The only considerations for these jackboot lickers are how we can make law enforcement’s job easier.

    4. How is it any different than following people around?

      1. It makes use of your own personal property to track you movements, 24/7 without your consent

      2. It enables police to monitor your remotely, and enables a single person to monitor multiple people simultaneously from one remote location – making it much easier for the police to monitor the movements of a bunch of people at once. Not so with assigning a tail to each person.

      And what Zeb said.

    5. If only we could trust these clowns to give citizens more rights.

      If only. . . .

      1. There aren’t any more rights to be given, just less suppression of such rights would be nice.

    6. Very Big difference.

      I’m so Liberal, I feel that Police should not be able to open an official investigation on you without a warrant.

      In crimes where the individual is observed committing an offense, the police should apprehend immediately and charged.

      The problem is going after vice crimes. Selling drugs should be allowed and the only offense a dealer can commit is possibly a civil offense for not complying with drug regulations…Never criminal.

      The pursuit of minding other peoples private lives has led us to this.

    7. Did you read the article? He was sentenced to life in prison for cocaine trafficking. That is, life in prison for selling something that nobody is forcing anyone to buy.

      To convict him, the cops didn’t just track his movements. They modified his car, without a warrant, hiding a GPS tracking device somewhere on or in the car.

      1. How would you feel if you found a GPS tracking device on your car even though you have done nothing wrong?

        The first test is not how the law impacts criminals, but how it impacts the innocent.

        1. That was directed at the OP, not zeroentitlement.

  6. The concurrence is pretty expansive because it could mean that the use of public surveillance like the UK’s CCTV network would also be constitutionally suspect.

  7. So three weeks is ok. Five is right out!

    1. …And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, “O LORD, bless this Thy hand grenade that with it Thou mayest blow Thine enemies to tiny bits, in Thy mercy.” And the LORD did grin and the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit bats and large chu…

      And the LORD spake, saying, “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.”

  8. 9-0 for the liberty! For just a moment, I’m simply going to enjoy it and not think too much about the nuances.

    This is a good day!

    1. You can say that again!

    2. Certainly don’t think about the other cases that are being considered in this session…

  9. 9-0 for the liberty! For just a moment, I’m simply going to enjoy it and not think too much about the nuances.

    This is a good day!

  10. Physically applying a device to one’s personal effects is a search and seizure. But I find the “length of time” point to be weak.

  11. Yeah, they went down the wrong path on this one.

    Its not the length of time they tracked his movements; its the trespass on his property that triggers the need for a warrant first. Like any other search is a trespass without a warrant, so is attaching gizmos to someone’s car.

    1. That’s the concurrence you’re talking about and was excerpted in the post.

      The majority did the strict trespass argument that you prefer.

    2. “”Like any other search is a trespass without a warrant,”‘

      Except for the warrantless once.

      However, this case did meet any current criteria for warrantless searchs, therefore lawmakers know what to do next.

      1. this case didn’t meet..

        What preview button?

  12. The problem with the “expectation of privacy” line is that it is purely subjective and court-defined.

    What one SCOTUS giveth, another SCOTUS canneth take away.

    1. The problem with the “expectation of privacy” line is that it is purely subjective and court-defined the government has no such expectations.


    2. What one SCOTUS giveth, another SCOTUS canneth take away.

      I know theoretically this can happen, but how often does it happen in practice? That whole stare decisis (sp?) thing… seems like they give plenty of deference to absolutely appalling decisions.

      Now the “standard” that Alito sets here is practically non-existant, a future court say “3 weeks and 6 days” is reasonable, and they’d still be in keeping with Alito’s decision.

      1. Their expectation of privacy argument is founded on their mystical ability to divine what the nation’s zeitgeist is.

        If, down the road, their read of that zeitgeist changes, so will the rule of law.

        They can say “well, ten years ago, the expectation of privacy was violated at 4 weeks. Times change, and now its two weeks, or one week, or whatever.”

        1. Their expectation of privacy argument is founded on their mystical ability to divine what the nation’s zeitgeist is.

          RC, the right to privacy will, unfortunately always be somewhat subjective.

          However, correct me if I’m wrong, but from my understanding, the whole basis of warrants and their use is based around the right to privacy.

          The warrant wasn’t created simply because someone thought that a nifty piece of paper with a fancy signature would make searches more legitimate, it was that the warrant represented a process. A process where parties sworn to uphold the law would determine if there were extenuating circumstances which legitimized an invasion of your privacy. And that invasion of your privacy would absolutely be confined to the areas of your property and life which could reasonably contain evidence satisfying the type being sought.

          If the concept of a warrant isn’t based around a right to privacy, what’s the point?

    3. The problem with the “expectation of privacy” line is that it is purely subjective and court-defined.

      What one SCOTUS giveth, another SCOTUS canneth take away.

      Sort of like private property rights and the trespass argument.

      I believe that BOTH the trespass and right-to-privacy arguments hold water.

  13. !!! Keep DOPE ALIVE !!!

    Hope they let the poor SLOB Free

    1. I’m not worried about any true slob being let go. He’ll either clean up his act or fuck up again. If he’s just selling drugs maybe he’ll do it low key from now on and won’t hurt anyone, in which case I don’t care if he doesn’t get caught.

    1. While these things are interesting and important for people to realize, I never think they tell the whole story.

      Primarily: what tracking features did Mr. Spitz have on his phone- which were actually in use etc?

      My thoughts:

      1. Anyone who’s surprised the cell phone company knows how many incoming/outgoing calls, their duration, to/from whom etc. You’ve forgotten that MA bell knew this stuff in 1972.

      2. Location tracking. This is the more interesting one. The cell phone companies will know a rough location simply based on which cell tower you’re connected to. But that location is very rough. I don’t use GPS tracking on my phone, but I sometimes check my location using the cell tower locating system. The possible radius of my location is huge. There’s no way you could pin me to a house, business or even a street.

      3. What other information does Mr. Spitz voluntarily give over that he could easily throttle?

      I know people right now who facebook, tweet, Footprint, Latitude, GPS track and blog their every movement, meal they eat, mood they’re in. The whole nine yards. Then they bitch about privacy. They get what they deserve.

      1. 2011 in Review: Defending Location Privacy in Courts and Congress

      2. German Police Using Hundreds of Thousands of “Silent” SMS Messages for Tracking Suspects

    2. Yeah, so here’s Mr. Spitz’s twitter account:!/maltespitz

      So now we know what he looks like. And then:

      Thursday, 4 February 2010

      In the evening, Spitz attends the “Open Politics” event during Social Media Week in the Caf? Weltgeist in Berlin’s Mitte district. (source: Twitter)

      So yeah, this guy strikes me as the uber-connected, social-media twitterbug who never hesitates to tell you exactly what he’s doing, where he’s doing it, for how long, who with… right. now. forever.

  14. Print|Email
    SCOTUS Rules That GPS Tracking Requires a Warrant

    Ha! In your face no-reasonable-expectation-of-privacy-on-a-public-street bitches.

    1. Guess who didnt read the decision. While that was discussed, the majority went with no-trespassing-without-a-warrant.

  15. Let’s not mess this up, the narrowest ground for the decision is the majority’s opinion, and Scalia was clear that the question of GPS tracking without illegal placement of the device is still open.

    1. Scalia was clear that the question of GPS tracking without illegal placement of the device is still open.

      Why wouldn’t it be if there was a properly obtained warrant?

      1. No, without a warrant.

        Even the placement of the device is okay with a warrant.

      2. I don’t understand your question, but if the tracker was placed in the car a la Knotts (in some container the suspect willingly places in his car, no warrant at any point in the process), the question of legality is still open.

        1. Maybe I didn’t understand your first comment. It sounded like you’re suggesting there should never be any circumstances whatsoever that would allow law enforcement to track your vehicle electronically. Specifically, I was responding to this statement:

          and Scalia was clear that the question of GPS tracking without illegal placement of the device is still open.

          But placing the device inside something causing the driver to unwittingly place in the car? Don’t see the difference. A bug is a bug is a bug. I beleive that the rules are very clear. The FBI can’t place a bug on my cell phone if I I leave it my table to go to the bathroom, any more than they can break into my house and put one in the corner lamp.

  16. U.S. v. Jones: A Big Privacy Win…..rivacy-win

  17. What a horrible monster that Scalia is. No conservative cares about constitutional protections. Wait…

  18. “Today the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that police need a search warrant before they can track a suspect’s movements by attaching a GPS device to his car. ”

    That’s actually incorrect and so are many of the comments in this thread – the Court ruled that installing a GPS device on a car to obtain information is a Fourth Amendment search, but did not say that such a search requires a warrant. On a technicality, the Court refused to consider the Government’s argument that under the circumstances a warrantless search was reasonable, leaving that question for another day.

  19. Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward, there are quite a few men who would be more than happy to help

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.