United States v. Jones: A breakdown of the case that changed the use of GPS

Last week, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion that will change the way LEOs do business. As always, I encourage you to read the full opinion. Like any opinion from the USSC, United States v. Jones contains many lessons for LEOs. In this post, I will go through the opinion for you, point out the value of appellate court opinions and tell you how to get the most out of every opinion from appellate courts, especially opinions from the USSC! All LEOs, especially trainers and administrators, must learn to read the entire opinion for themselves and apply the full effect of the court’s decision.

First things first. With any opinion, you must determine what the court examined. What was the issue “before the court?” This is critical as appellate courts, and especially the USSC, issue opinions as to narrow issues of law. People often misquote or improperly apply case law because they forget that the decision of every appellate court is limited to the issue before the court. The issue is framed by the facts of the case and the legal question to be resolved.

In United States v. Jones, the issue before the Court was stated as follows: “We decide whether the attachment of a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking device to an individual’s vehicle, and subsequent use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements on public streets, constitutes a search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.” This is stated at the outset to frame the rest of the opinion. Appellate courts typically work to decide narrow issues of law. As an example, in this case, the Court discussed other questions raised by this case but not presented by the facts of this case. Justice Scalia summarized the unwillingness of the Court to reach decisions on hypothetical cases stating, “We may have to grapple with these “vexing problems” in some future case where a classic trespassory search is not involved and resort must be had to Katz analysis; but there is no reason for rushing forward to resolve them here.”

The next part of the opinion is a statements of the facts. This is a critical part of the opinion. The Court spends a great deal of time compiling this statement of facts from the briefs submitted by the lawyers for both sides as well as the “record” of the case. The record consists of everything from the transcript of the trial, the evidence presented at trial, the motions and rulings in the trial court and the opinions of all other appellate courts that ruled on the case. In short, the USSC has before it everything related to the case. From this, the judges and their staff compile a statement of facts.

The statement of facts is critical to LEOs. This allows you to find out what law enforcement procedures or actions were examined by the USSC. You can then look at your own day to day operations and determine how to proceed. For example, based upon this opinion, law enforcement administrators will examine their internal procedures and change policies to conform to the new law of the land as expressed by the highest court in the country.

The next part of the opinion sets out the principles of law the Court finds applicable to the case. For example, in United States v. Jones, the Court set out the principle that a vehicle is an “effect” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment which states, that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Justice Scalia also explains the history of the Court’s opinions using the analogy of a search to a trespass and the later cases that explain how the reasonable expectation of privacy analysis guided the Court. The Court begins the opinion with this section because the Court must rely on precedent when ruling on a case. In this section, the Court sets out the precedent upon which it relies for this opinion. This part of the opinion is also important for LEOs because you can learn a tremendous amount about past cases and the principles that the Court finds important. At the end of this section, the Court comes to the conclusion or the “holding” in the case. In United States v. Jones, the USSC upheld the decision of the lower appellate court reversing Jones’ conviction.

Next are the concurring and any dissenting opinions. A concurring opinion agrees with the end result of the main opinion but states a different reason or interpretation of the law. A dissenting opinion is authored by a judge who disagrees with the main or “majority” opinion and explains why the judge or judges disagree. Concurring and dissenting opinions hold a great deal of insight about the Court’s reasoning or rationale for deciding the case.  Often, the reasoning of the concurring or dissenting opinion influence the court in future opinions.

So, on to United States v. Jones. The USSC found that the installation of a GPS device constitutes a “search” of an “effect” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This is partly based upon a concept that a search is similar to a trespass. If a person would not be permitted to act in a certain manner because those actions would be a trespass to another, then the court considers the action by law enforcement to be a search. The second part of the analysis is that the Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches. In this case, the Court found that the insertion on a GPS device to the undercarriage of a privately owned vehicle constitutes a search and raises sufficient Fourth Amendment concerns so as to require a search warrant.

Read it, learn from it and practice the principles set out in the opinion. If you act contrary to the rules set out in this opinion, you could expose yourself to liability.

As a LEO, you should embrace every opinion of the USSC. The justices work hard to understand the realities of law enforcement. While it is easy to criticize an opinion, you must recognize that the United States Constitution was drafted by a group of people who were fearful of government. They drafted a document that would establish a government with boundaries that is responsible first and foremost to the people. In that analysis, the Court must err on the side of limiting government intrusions especially when the only effect is requiring LEOs to seek a search warrant.

Stay safe.

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