I appreciate the chance to engage with CoOp readers on the United States v. Jones case. I wrote an Op Ed for the Baltimore Sun, so here’s what I have to say.
I really wanted to love the Supreme Court’s decision Monday in United States v. Jones. As one deeply committed to personal liberty and restrained government, what’s not to love when the nation’s highest court finds the police must obtain a warrant before continuously tracking the citizenry with installed GPS devices? Unfortunately, the answer is “plenty.”
The Supreme Court in Jones could have categorically denounced intrusive government monitoring in the mold of the Orwellian state. It didn’t. And so, while the result in Jones is being roundly celebrated in many quarters, there remain good reasons for privacy fans to hold our applause.
Acting on suspicions that Antoine Jones was selling drugs, the government attached a GPS device to his car. From that device, police computers received a steady stream of information about the car’s location for 28 days. In all, more than 2,000 pages of location data were transmitted. Some of the data linked Mr. Jones to a house where substantial quantities of drugs and money were found. Mr. Jones was consequently charged with drug trafficking offenses. The trial court held that most of the data gleaned from the GPS device was admissible.
Commendably, the Supreme Court reversed that decision and declared the GPS monitoring of Mr. Jones unconstitutional. In doing so, however, the court refused to answer the long-standing question of constitutional limits on the Orwellian state. The case was an opportunity for the court to announce that round-the-clock surveillance of citizens without a warrant offends Fourth Amendment guarantees. Instead, the court based its analysis upon the narrower observation that the police attached a device to Mr. Jones’ car. The Supreme Court’s reluctance is understandable; the broader questions are complex and not easily resolved. But, now more than ever, advances in technology make pressing the need to confront the questions head on.