On November 8th, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in United States v. Jones, the case on whether installation and/or use of a GPS device on a suspect’s car to record the public places the car travels is a Fourth Amendment search or seizure. I wanted to offer my thoughts on the case.
Issue: (1) Whether the warrantless use of a tracking device on respondent’s vehicle to monitor its movements on public streets violated the Fourth Amendment; and (2) 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.
Plain English Issue: Whether the Constitution allows police to put a tracking device on a car without either a warrant or the owner’s permission; and whether the Constitution is violated when police use the tracking device to keep track of the car’s whereabouts.
Does GPS Surveillance Justify A Departure from the Knotts/Karo Line?
In Jones, a GPS device was placed on the suspect’s car. The trial court concluded that the evidence of the GPS device in the suspect’s garage had to be suppressed under Karo, but that the evidence of the GPS device in public was permitted under Knotts. Only the latter evidence, the evidence of the location of the car on the public street, is at issue in the Jones case. The basic argument of the defendant-respondent in Jones is that GPS surveillance is different from radio beeper surveillance, and that those differences justify a departure from the Knotts/Karo information-based approach. The gist of the argument is that GPS monitoring is just too invasive to be allowed without judicial oversight — the monitoring is too constant, too easily done, too continuous, and too detailed.
The text of the Fourth Amendment states that the Amendment protects security in “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” and the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable “searches” does so by protecting invasions into those private spaces. Over the years, the Supreme Court has developed a relatively simple line for distinguishing the invasions into persons, houses, papers, and effects that the Fourth Amendment regulates as “searches” from the investigative steps that the Fourth Amendment does not regulate.
Government entry into a home is a search, as is entry into a car, or a sealed package, or a letter, or a person’s pockets. These are all intrusions into persons, houses, papers, and effects. They are all searches. On the other hand, surveillance in public places that does not enter into private spaces, such as watching someone on the street, looking at their faces, examining the outside of their packages, overhearing their voice, or following someone in a store open to the public, is not a search. These are not intrusions into persons, houses papers, or effects, and they are not searches under the Fourth Amendment.
Interestingly, you get these same results regardless of version of the Supreme Court’s doctrine you apply. You get the same results whether you get these results under the “protected areas” test that preceded the 1967 Katz case, or the Katz “reasonable expectation of privacy” test that the Court has adopted since then.
The results are the same: A search occurs when the government intrudes upon a private person, house, paper, or effect, but does not occur when the government merely observes something in a public space or in a space where the government is otherwise entitled to be.
For example, imagine the police approach a home, walk directly up to an open window, press their faces up to the window, and peer in to see what is in the room inside. Technically, that is surveillance from an open space, but functionally it is surveillance of the inside of the home. Is that protected inside surveillance, or unprotected outside surveillance? The Supreme Court has created the distinction between “curtilage” and “open fields” to answer that: The outside area immediately around the home that can be used to peer inside the home is treated as inside surveillance (curtilage) rather than outside surveillance (open fields). See United States v. Dunn. Similarly, imagine the police use a thermal imaging device to determine the exterior temperature of a wall on the home. Is that outside surveillance, as it is only of the outside of the wall exposed to the public, or is that inside surveillance, as it reveals information about the inside of home? It’s a tricky call, as the 5–4 decision in Kyllo v. United States reveals. But the basic point remains: The distinction between inside and outside surveillance is the basic building block of the Supreme Court’s “search” cases.
The Knotts and Karo Precedents from the Radio Beeper Era
How does this distinction apply to the use of government surveillance devices installed to determine the location of property used or controlled by a criminal suspect? The Supreme Court first grappled with this in two cases in the 1980s, United States v. Knotts and United States v. Karo. Both cases involved radio beepers provided by the government that the suspects did not realize were present and broadcasting their location. The technology was crude compared to today’s GPS technology, but it did the job: It enabled the government to know the location of the beepers, and thus, implicitly, the location of the suspects that the police wanted to follow.
Knotts and Karo reasoned that the way to translate the traditional Fourth Amendment protection to the era of high-tech radio beepers was to focus on the information that the surveillance devices revealed. Recall that the traditional Fourth Amendment rule was that the police could always watch a suspect in public (no search), but that they could not enter protected spaces without a warrant or some Fourth Amendment oversight (a search). Knotts and Karo together drew the same line for government-installed location devices: If the device is used to monitor a location in public, then no search occurred (Knotts), but if the device was used to monitor a location inside a protected space, like a home, then a search occurred (Karo).
Panel on United States v. Jones, the Fourth Amendment GPS Case: A student event panel (September 13, 2011) on the Supreme Court Case, United States v. Jones (“the GPS case”), focusing on whether the government may attach a GPS to a car without a warrant and whether receiving information from the device is a search.
Featuring Prof. Orin Kerr of George Washington University Law School; Prof. Melanie Wilson of Kansas University School of Law; Steve Leckar of Shainis & Peltzman, Chartered. Moderated by Prof. Paul Marcus of William & Mary School of Law.