The Supreme Court justices were decked out in their usual black robes today for U.S. vs Jones [pdf], a case involving the question of whether police need a warrant to attach a GPS tracker to someone’s car. But given their paranoia about possible technology-enabled government intrusions on privacy, it might not have been surprising if they had also been wearing tin foil hats.
The case involves Antoine Jones, a D.C. nightclub owner who was busted for running a massive cocaine ring after police placed a GPS tracker on his Jeep Cherokee that tracked his movements for a month and showed him regularly driving to a stash house in Maryland. The police got a warrant to do this, but put a tracker on Mr. Jones’s Jeep the day after the warrant expired (and while it was in a parking lot in Maryland, rather than in D.C., where the warrant was issued). D’oh!
The government argued that the tracker followed Jones’s movements only on public streets, where he could otherwise be readily observed, so said it didn’t violate his privacy (and thus argued that the government doesn’t ever need a warrant to track people this way). Jones’s side argued that tracking someone’s every move for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for four weeks becomes an unreasonable search and a violation of privacy because of the pervasiveness of the tracking. Jones’s lawyer was also quite hung up on the idea that the government shouldn’t have the right to stick stuff on your property, and thus trespass against you.
Last year, the Supreme Court made a very narrow ruling in a case involving technology and privacy, deciding that a California SWAT officer was not entitled to privacy when it came to steamy text messages he sent on a work-owned (and thus government-owned) pager. They avoided making any larger pronouncements about whether employees generally have any kind of privacy when it comes to what they do on work-owned computers and smartphones.
I assumed that the justices might be similarly reserved in making big pronouncements about privacy and technology in this case, but based on the arguments today, it’s not looking that way. The justices came out swinging, posing big theoretical questions about the potential for vast government surveillance using smartphones and other tracking technologies that are getting cheaper and cheaper. In short, the justices seem ready for a big privacy rumble.
Unfortunately, Jones’s local criminal defense attorney, Stephen Leckar, is rumored to have rejected an offer from famed appellate lawyer Walter Dellinger of O’Melveny & Myers to argue the case. And Leckar wasn’t as ready for the rumble.