Technology: Supreme Court to decide whether warrantless GPS tracking violates 4th Amendment

The court will address privacy issues in United States v. Jones.

On Nov. 8, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument in United States v. Jones, to determine whether the government violates the Fourth Amendment when it affixes a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking device to a person’s car and monitors its movements on public streets for four weeks without a warrant.

In determining whether a search occurred, two views of an individual’s expectation of privacy are at odds:

The D.C. Circuit held that the totality of Jones’s movements was not exposed to the public for two reasons:

  1. Unlike movements during a single journey, the whole of a person’s movements over the course of a month is not actually exposed to the public because the likelihood anyone will observe all those movements is effectively nil.
  2. The whole of movements is not exposed constructively even though each individual movement is exposed, because that whole reveals more — sometimes a great deal more — than does the sum of its parts.

Under this “mosaic” theory, the D.C. Circuit held that Jones had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the totality of his month-long pattern of movements. Thus, the government’s tracking of those movements constituted a search conducted without a warrant. Therefore, the D.C. Circuit reversed Jones’s conviction.


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Patrick Patras

Patrick L. Patras is a partner in the Chicago office of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP. He concentrates his practice in the areas of intellectual property...

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