The Second-Day Story on U.S. v. Jones

Does a more careful reading of the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Jones turn up a lurking victory for the government?

Modern media moves so fast that the second-day story happens in the afternoon of the first. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday morning that government agents conduct a Fourth Amendment search when they place a GPS device on a private vehicle and use it to monitor a suspect’s whereabouts for weeks at a time. Monday afternoon, a couple of commentators suggested that the case is less a win than many thought because it didn’t explicitly rule that a warrant is required to attach a GPS device to a vehicle.

Writing on the Volokh Conspiracy blog, George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr noted “What Jones Does Not Hold.”

The Court declined to reach when the installation of the device is reasonable or unreasonable. … So we actually don’t yet know if a warrant is required to install a GPS device; we just know that the installation of the device is a Fourth Amendment “search.”

And over on Scotusblog, Tom Goldstein found that “The Government Fared Much Better Than Everyone Realizes”:

[D]oes the “search” caused by installing a GPS device require a warrant? The answer may be no, given that no member of the Court squarely concludes it does and four members of the Court (those who join the Alito concurrence) do not believe it constitutes a search at all.

So there is a constitutional search when the government attaches a GPS device to a vehicle, but the Court conspicuously declined to say that such a search requires a warrant. Do we have an “a-ha” moment?

When the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case, it took the unusual step of adding to the questions it wanted addressed. In addition to “[w]hether the warrantless use of a tracking device on respondent’s vehicle to monitor its movements on public streets violated the Fourth Amendment,” the Court wanted to know “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.” These are both compound questions, but the dimension added by the second is the Fourth Amendment meaning of attaching a device to a vehicle. The case was about attaching a device to a vehicle, and if the Court didn’t walk through every clause in each of the questions presented, that’s why.

On that central question in the case, the government argued the following: “Attaching the GPS tracking device to respondent’s vehicle was not a search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment.” The government lost, full stop.

Now, it’s true that the Court’s majority opinion didn’t explictly find that the “search” that occurs when attaching and using a GPS device requires a warrant, but look at its characterization of the opinion it affirmed: “The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed [Jones’s] conviction because of admission of the evidence obtained by warrantless use of the GPS device which, it said, violated the Fourth Amendment.”

The Court did decline to consider the argument that the government might be able to attach a device based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause—that argument was “forfeited” by the government’s failure to raise it in the lower courts—but if the Supreme Court were limiting its holding to the attachment-as-search issue, it would have remanded the case back to the lower courts for further proceedings consistent with the opinion. It did not, and the sensible inference to draw from that is that the general rule applies: a warrant is required in the absence of one of the customary exceptions. Failing to make that explicit was not “opening a door” to a latent government victory. U.S. v. Jones was a unanimous decision rejecting the government’s warrantless use of outré technology to defeat the natural privacy protections provided by law and physics.

At least one serious lawyer I know has raised the point that I address here, and it is a real one, but some in the commentariat are a little too showy with their analysis and far too willing to go looking for a government victory in what is nothing other than a government defeat.