On January 23, 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in United States v. Jones, a controversial Fourth Amendment case which raised fundamental questions about the scope of the government’s power to track a citizen’s movements. At issue was evidence that the Prosecution had relied upon in convicting Antoine Jones. To obtain this evidence, investigators planted a GPS system—without a valid warrant—on a car owned by Jone’s wife and then proceeded to monitor the vehicle’s movements for the next four weeks before his arrest. In a victory for liberty and property rights, the Supreme Court unanimously held that, by planting and tracking the GPS, the Government had conducted a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.
Since the Fourth Amendment protects only against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” the Government argued that no Fourth Amendment protections are afforded to an individual when he or she is in plain view of the public because an individuals has “no reasonable expectation of privacy” when in the public eye. This line of argument invoked grave privacy concerns among several of the Justices who anticipated Orwellian scenarios that will likely unfold, in our new digital age, if Fourth Amendment’s protections are not extended to require Government agents to obtain warrants before electronically tracking its citizens movements. Yet Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, left open the question of when electronic surveillance may constitute a search requiring a warrant.
Instead the case was decided on the ground that the Founding Fathers intended to the Fourth Amendment to protect property rights. The notion that the Fourth Amendment protects an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy is a relatively new concept, and was meant only to supplement the historical understanding that Fourth Amendment protections are to be afforded where the government trespasses upon an individual’s home or belongings. Thus the question of whether an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy is only pertinent where the government gathers information without actually encroaching upon the individual’s home or personal belongings. As Justices Alito and Sotomayor argue, the Court may well need to consider such privacy issues in future Fourth Amendment cases, but nonetheless, the Jones decision ensures that the Fourth Amendment will continue to protect both private property and privacy rights.