What constitutes a search? How far are the police allowed to go to obtain evidence? Technology is evolving at an extremely rapid rate; it is in a constant state of flux. This gives the police new tools by which to conduct their investigations. It gives them greater power and with greater power comes greater responsibility. So it must be decided then at what point are they going too far and need to reigned in a little bit. One of these issues was recently decided in the United States Supreme Court in the case U.S. v. Jones.
Mr. Jones was the co-owner of a nightclub in the Washington D.C. area who was suspected of also dealing large quantities of cocaine. A joint effort by D.C. police and the FBI wanted to attach a GPS tracking device to his vehicle. They received a warrant to place the GPS device on his vehicle for 10 days and only in Washington D.C. The police actually installed the tracking device on his car 11 days after the warrant was issued and did so in Maryland. The police then proceeded to follow Mr. Jones around for the next 28 days. Mr. Jones was eventually busted in a residence with 100 kilograms of cocaine and $850,000 cash. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The appeals process began soon thereafter with the major question being did the police violate his 4th Amendment rights against an illegal search and seizure. The Supreme Court all agreed that the police did in fact violate Mr. Jones’s rights. All nine justices on the Court agreed that there was a violation in the case; they however did not all agree on why there was a violation. The Court was split 5-4 in their reasoning behind it. The majority stated that a person’s private property is legally protected and the advancements in technology do not override this fundamental protection of the Constitution. They based their finding on the fact that the placement of the GPS tracker was indeed a search and therefore required a warrant.
The other four justices thought there was a greater issue to be addressed here. They believe that the bigger issue is the privacy protections that are afforded to citizens have not kept up with technology, at least on paper. They thought that the Court should have taken this opportunity to clearly define some boundaries concerning GPS and other advancements in technology that law enforcement has at its disposal. They were also concerned with the length of the observation of Mr. Jones. They followed him gathering information for 28 days. One would have to believe if they had any kind of evidence they could have obtained a proper warrant in this amount of time.
I do not believe this case will be the last we hear about something like this happening. I know that with all the advancements in technology that are coming about daily you have to believe this may just be the tip of the iceberg. I do sincerely hope that they get the details worked out soon of what is and is not permitted with these advancements. I hate to see guilty people going free due to a gray area in the law. We however must be careful to not trample due process for the sake of crime control.
What do you think? Was this a case of an illegal search and seizure? Was the bigger issue the length of time of the investigation? Should the Supreme Court taken advantage of this opportunity to more clearly define the parameters of electronic surveillance?