In this paper, I document my research on the landmark court ruling delivered in United
States v. Jones. In this particular case, the police fixed a GPS in the car in the possession of Jones
and monitored his movements without a warrant to capture evidence on drug dealings and the
court was required to determine if that amounted to unreasonable searches and seizures or
violation of the reasonable expectation to privacy on the part of Jones.
The case of United States v. Jones emanated from the need to balance individual privacy
rights and the needs of law enforcement. This case was premised in the legal yardstick provided
for under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S Constitution which seeks the balance between
individual privacy needs and law enforcement needs. The Fourth Amendment serves the purpose
of protecting individuals against government intrusion on their rights to privacy and property
(Clancy, 2012). This case involved the placement of a GPS tracking device on the undercarriage
of a car within the suspect’s possession with a month of constant monitoring.
The court in United States v. Jones had to analyze whether the placement of the GPS on
the car for the purposes of collecting evidence without the suspect’s knowledge qualified as a
search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and at the same time establish whether this
act went beyond the individual reasonable expectation of the right to privacy.
In this matter, police installed GPS on a vehicle registered to respondent Jones’s wife
without judicial approval in Maryland. The vehicle was monitored by the government for 28
days. Through the monitoring, evidence was collected which led to the indictment of Jones and
others on drug trafficking conspiracy charges. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C.
Circuit ruled that attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s car and using the device to monitor the
movement of the car in the public street constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment rights
(“United States v. Jones”, 2012). Therefore, the Supreme Court overturned Jones’ conviction,
Jones is entitled to the protection of the Fourth Amendment.
The Fourth Amendment was introduced in congress by James Madison in 1789 and
became officially part of the constitution on March 1, 1792. The Supreme Court in an earlier
landmark case of Katz v. United States (1967), held that “What a person knowingly exposes to
the public … is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection.” Justice Harlan’s analysis in
concurrence with Katz case, mused that a violation occurs when government officers violate a
person’s “reasonable expectation of privacy” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.
However, “Reasonable expectation of privacy” was becoming more and more powerless in the
face of rapidly advancing modern technology, which made the Supreme Court to reflect on
Katz’s case. In United States v Jones, the court declined to apply the “reasonable expectation”
test to overrun the protection offered under the Fourth Amendment but instead applied property
rights. The vehicle is a private property, and thus the government agent had no right for using it
for monitoring and surveillance purposes without valid warranty. This replaced Katz’s case and
became a new landmark case representing the Fourth Amendment standard.
Proponents and Opponents of the Law established in Jones Case
Those in support of the Law established in Jones case seek for reforms in the Fourth
Amendment doctrine. It should be up to the court to make pronouncements about one’s
expectations of privacy so as to determine when they should accord them constitutional
protections. On January 23, 2012, Justice Scalia stated “The government had obtained
information by usurping Jones’ property and by invading his privacy” (“United States v. Jones”,
2012). This statement got the support of Justice Sotomayor, Alito, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan .
Opponents of this court decision contend that people should not expect privacy on things they
expose to the public (Litt, 2016). They think Jones had no reasonable expectation of privacy
while on the public streets.
Through this case, Justice Scalia called on the legislature to make statutory rules on the
use of GPS surveillance devices, just like the Congress did with wiretapping technology a
generation ago. This case requires reforms to be made in Fourth Amendment protection rights
and congress should pass law that is more applicable and agreeable especially with the
advancement of technology and electronic surveillance methods by the Department of Homeland
Security and other law enforcement agents (Priester, 2012).
Courts have continued to use the ‘reasonable expectation’ established in Katz case to
determine if one’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable “searches and seizures” have
been violated. The precedent set in United States v. Jones brought some light into a grey area
ensuring that future cases in which the government and the police have violated either the
protection against unreasonable searches and seizures or the reasonable expectation to privacy
can be resolved in favor of the victim after a reasonable balance of the situation.
Clancy, T. K. (2012). United States v. Jones: Fourth amendment applicability in the 21st
century. Ohio St. J. Crim. L., 10, 303.
Litt, R. S. (2016). The Fourth Amendment in the Information Age. Yale LJF, 126, 8.
Priester, B. J. (2012). Five Answers and Three Questions after United States v. Jones (2012), the
Fourth Amendment GPS Case. Okla. L. Rev., 65, 491.
Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 361 (1967) (Harlan, J., concurring)
United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945, 948 (2012).