Still, the decision reversing the conviction of suspected D.C. drug kingpin Antoine Jones was a “landmark ruling in applying the Fourth Amendment’s protections to advances in surveillance technology,” said Washington lawyer Andrew Pincus, who filed a brief on Jones’s behalf.
The court without dissent agreed that prosecutors violated Jones’s rights when they attached a GPS device to his Jeep and monitored his movements for 28 days. In one of the Washington region’s most celebrated drug trials, the nightclub owner was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
But while all the justices agreed with that outcome, they split 5 to 4 in their reasoning.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority that it was the attachment of the device that violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,’ ” Scalia wrote.
Scalia did not hold that a warrant was always necessary. But Walter Dellinger, who helped represent Jones at the Supreme Court, said the decision means that any use of GPS technology by law enforcement without a warrant “would be a risky undertaking.”
Scalia’s limited ruling was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor. Scalia said that electronic surveillance, if achieved without having to physically trespass on a person’s property, still may be “an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.”
He said there was “no reason for rushing forward” to resolve more complicated issues than those presented in Jones’s case.
But it was those difficult questions — about society’s expectation of privacy in an increasingly technological world — that had animated the court’s consideration of the case. In an intense hour-long oral argument in November, the Big Brother of George Orwell’s novel “1984” was referenced six times.
In separate opinions, Sotomayor and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote of the sweeping changes technology has brought to society that do not involve government intrusions.
“In the course of carrying out mundane tasks,” Sotomayor wrote, Americans disclose the phone numbers they dial, the URLs they visit, “the books, groceries and medications they purchase.”
Alito wrote of toll booths that record a motorist’s travels, cars that come ready to broadcast their locations and 322 million wireless devices in use nationally.