Although advances in communications technology have made our lives easier in many ways, government use of technology can have a darker side as evidenced by the recent scandals involving the NSA snooping on telephone calls made by American citizens and FBI use of national security letters to demand secret information from private businesses. Intrusions on privacy interests embodied in the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizures have
been methodically undermined in recent decades, but these spying techniques have been criticized by the Obama administration’s own internal review panel. A Supreme Court decision last year demonstrates how courts are struggling to balance the technological innovations that provide more effective law enforcement tools with protecting citizen’s privacy from overreaching by law enforcement entities.
The U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 949, 565 U.S. ___ (2012), involved Drug Enforcement Agents (DEA) who installed a tracking devices on the vehicle of a suspected drug dealer without a warrant supported by probable cause. While the nation’s highest court along with Congress have systematically chipped away at the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure during the last couple decades, the Jones decision limited law enforcement’s warrantless surveillance of those they believe to be involved in drug trafficking where legal basis for the GPS tracking is not subject to prior judicial approval. While the decision was a step in the right direction in terms of protecting the interest of citizen’s not to be subjected to virtually limitless GPS tracking and surveillance simply because law enforcement officers have alleged that an individual is engaged in drug sales, the decision also leaves many questions unanswered.
The law enforcement agents in Jones installed a global positioning device (GPS) on the vehicle of Antoine Jones, who was suspected of engaging in the sale of narcotics. Based in part on evidence obtained during 28 days of tracking the movements of the accused with the GPS device, Jones was arrested and eventually convicted of possession with intent to distribute 5 or more kilos of cocaine and fifty or more grams of base cocaine.
When the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case on appeal, Jones contended that the evidence obtained by virtue of the GPS tracking device should be suppressed because it was obtained unlawfully in violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.
While the decision was unanimous in rejecting the appropriateness of the law enforcement use of extended periods of GPS surveillance without a warrant, the Supreme Court left many questions undecided because the justices split on the rationale for their ruling. While all of the justices agreed that installation of the GPS device on Jones vehicle did constitute a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, they split on the reason that the conduct was impermissible.
The majority of five justices that comprised the more conservative wing of the court relied on the intrusion on Jones property interest in having the device installed on his vehicle. The majority focused on the notion that installation of the device constituted a trespass against Jones’ property. The concurring opinion focused on the reasonable expectation of privacy that drivers have that they are not being tracked by a GPS device. The concurring justices also focused on the extent of the GPS monitoring which was conducted 24/7 for a period of 28 days. The extensive prolonged nature of this tracking of the movements of Jones provided the basis for the concurring decision.
The lawfulness of searches are often a common issue in Florida drug cases because drugs, money, contraband and other items that are seized from the accused home, vehicle or business often constitute the key evidence against the accused. The reasonable expectation of privacy standard that is intrinsic in Fourth Amendment cases is important as courts confront changes in technology that permit spying on citizens that would not previously have been feasible. Around the clock surveillance conducted for weeks at a time would have been cost prohibitive without GPS technology.
While the outcome in Jones represents a positive sign for the rights of citizens not to be subject to high-tech surveillance, the decision raises as many questions as it answers. The outcome might have been different if the police had simply relied on cell phone tracking or a GPS system installed in the vehicle. The concurring opinion leaves open the question of the duration and extent of GPS tracking that is permissible before a warrant is required.
If you have been arrested for a drug offense based on evidence obtained during a search of your person, vehicle, residence or other property, an experienced Florida drug crimes attorney might be able to file a motion to have critical evidence, such as the drugs suppressed if the search was not lawful. Florida law enforcement agencies take drug offenses very seriously so it is important to seek legal advice immediately.