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U.S. v. Jones – The Supreme Court Upholds The Letter And Spirit Of The Constitution.

In 2004, Antoine Jones, the owner of a night club in the District of Columbia, was suspected by the police and the FBI of trafficking in illegal drugs and narcotics. As part of the investigation, in 2005 the government asked for and obtained a warrant from the District of Columbia to attach a global positioning satellite (GPS) device on the Jeep Cherokee used by Jones. The warrant specified the GPS device be installed within 10 days and be installed within the District of Columbia.

However well intentioned the government may have been to catch a drug dealer, the government violated the terms of the warrant and attached the GPS to the Cherokee on the 11th day (after the warrant had expired), and while the car and Jones were in Virginia, not the District of Columbia. The GPS device tracked Jones for 28 days, during which time the agents replaced the battery once. The tracking information which was generated required over 2000 pages to print.

Jones was eventually arrested, tried and convicted for drug trafficking. Upon his conviction, Jones appealed saying the police had violated his fourth Amendment rights. After appeals in lower courts, the Supreme Court took up the case and issued its ruling in U.S. v. Jones saying the government’s use of the GPS device without a legal warrant was in fact a violation of Jones’s Fourth Amendment Rights.

Jones’ conviction was overturned.

The ruling in the case was 9 – 0, but while the vote to overturn was unanimous, the reasoning was not. Four Justices (Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy and Thomas) issued the majority opinion. Justice Sotamayor wrote a concurring opinion which came to the same conclusion but with slightly different reasoning. Justice Alito was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan in another separate concurrence but once again with different reasoning. This was 9 people arriving at the same party by taking different routes.

To understand the decision, we have to start with the basics – the Fourth Amendment itself:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The ruling follows the letter and the spirit of the Fourth Amendment very closely.

To illustrate, we will counter some objections people have had to the ruling. The first is, as a friend and fellow blogger wrote, “what was searched?

Frankly, that is the wrong question as the Fourth Amendment prohibits “searches,” the noun, and not “searches,” the verb. While the distinction seems minor, it is an important one. A search, defined legally, is a “an attempt to find something or to obtain information.”

There can be no doubt the government was looking for information on the travels and activities of Jones when they placed the tracking device on the vehicle. There is no way to argue around the fact this was a search. The question then becomes “was the search Constitutional?”

To answer that question, we must look at the direct wording and history of the Fourth Amendment.

To track Jones, the agents placed the GPS device on a piece of private property – the Jeep. The Fourth Amendment states “… The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects…..” “Effects” was understood by the Framers to be property. In fact, they based the Fourth Amendment in part on the established English Common law case of Entick v. Carrington which held:

“[O]ur law holds the property of every man so sacred,that no man can set his foot upon his neighbour’s close without his leave; if he does he is a trespasser, though he does no damage at all; if he will tread upon his neighbour’s ground, he must justify it by law.”

Without the warrant, the government had no legal reason or justification to violate or intrude upon Jones’ property.

Some would say that because the Jeep was on a public street or in a public parking lot, which is where the agents placed the device and later changed the battery, Jones had no “reasonable expectation of privacy.” This would be true if all the agents did was visually inspect or track the Jeep. However, the government acknowledged in their pleadings “the officers in this case did more than conduct a visual inspection of respondent’s vehicle.

Furthermore to make the “public” argument stick, one would have to conclude a person loses their rights to their property when they step out into public. We know that cannot be so. If it were, the police would have the right to stop and search you as you walk down the street. They would have the right to search your car anytime they made a stop.

To further illustrate, those who believe Jones’ gave up his Fourth Amendment rights to be “secure in his effects” when the car was out in the public would have to believe the police could plant a bug on someone’s coat as they were walking down the street. The coat and the person would be in the public view. If one believes Jones forfeited his Fourth Amendment rights simply by the Jeep being in the view of the public, one has to concede planting a bug would be legal. Yet it is not and not many people would ever hold that it was.

Jones had a express right to believe his Jeep was not touched, trespassed or intruded upon by the government. When the government did just that to Jones’ Jeep, his effects were no longer secure, and the Fourth Amendment was violated.

Some have offered Jones’ movement could have been monitored by agents visually tracking him. That is certainly true, but whether the actions of the government were Constitutional or not do not rest on the results. The Constitutionality rests on the actions taken by the government to achieve those results. The un-Constitutional actions of the government occurred when the agents violated the effects of Jones (the Jeep), not when they obtained the information. Obtaining the information only proves the government was engaged in a search, which they were.

Lastly, a friend noted the Justices commented on what was termed “the pervasiveness of the search.” Our friend expressed the opinion:

Well, I’m sorry but pervasiveness does not equal a search.

We agree. The pervasiveness of the act does not define a search. What the pervasiveness of the government’s actions go to is once again found in the Fourth Amendment clause “….against unreasonable searches and seizures….

The pervasiveness of the search – tracking Jones everywhere (even to places where he was out of public view) and generating 2000 printed pages of movements over a four week period of time – lead to the conclusion the search was “unreasonable.”

Americans have an aversion to being under the watchful eye of the government for that long of a period and generating that detailed a report on their movements. It would be very difficult to argue the average person would see the governments actions in this case as being “reasonable.”

In summary, we need to again look at the total wording of the Fourth Amendment and then apply the various clauses and stipulations to the actions of the government in this case.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Did the government engage in a “search?” Yes.

Did the government violate the security of the effects (property) of Jones? Yes.

Was the search “reasonable?” No.

There is no other logical conclusion other than to say the Supreme Court got this one right. There is not a clause or stipulation of the Fourth Amendment the government did not violate.

The Court remained true to the letter and spirit of the Constitution.



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