United States v. Jones: The Supreme Court to Decide if Government Needs Warrant to Track a Suspect Using GPS

With the rapid advances in technology, it’s no surprise that the law has been slow to address the possible reaches these new techniques and devices may have on individuals. However, with United States v. Jones currently pending before the Supreme Court, the law may be close to catching up.

The Jones case presents the Court with the opportunity to define an individual’s expectation of privacy within the context of surveillance technology. Specifically, the Court will determine through the lens of the Fourth Amendment, whether the government can use GPS technology to track an individual’s car without a warrant.

Traditionally, the Court has acknowledged an expectation of privacy inside the home when law enforcement seeks to monitor an individual. For example, the use of thermal imaging technology to measure heat emanating from a home requires law enforcement to have a warrant. However, when law enforcement monitoring occurs in the open, such as using beeper signals to track an individual’s car, it has been less inclined to find the same expectation. The tracking of a car using GPS technology isn’t as cut and dry-monitoring a car with GPS technology occurs outside the home, but the information constantly collected and analyzed isn’t publicly accessible.

The Supreme Court isn’t the only one wrestling with issues surrounding this new technology. Congress has proposed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (EPCA) in response to the impact of new surveillance technology on privacy and electronic communications. The bill would impose more rigid warrant requirements on the government in order to intercept electronic communications in transit.

The Court’s decision in the Jones case will answer how the Court will view the government’s use of emerging surveillance technologies and data collection against individuals and businesses. The Supreme Court decision is expected in early 2012.