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Posted in Searches & Seizures

We have mentioned the case of U.S. v. Jones which was pending before the United States Supreme Court, and  the issue of whether placement of a gobal positioning satellite (GPS)  device on a vehicle by law enforcement constitutes a search. Late last month, the Court issued an opinion holding that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle constituted a search.  Justice Scalia authored the opinion of the plurality, which was joined by Justices Kennedy, Thomas and Sotomayor. Two concurring opinions were issued, the first by Justice Sotomayor and the second by Justice Alito, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan.

The main opinion begins with the premise that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution "protects people, not places." Katz v.  U.S., 389 U. S. 347, 351 (1967).  The Court also observed that the Fourth Amendment was historically viewed as embodying a concern for governmental trespass to a person’s person, property, papers and "effects."

The government’s primary argument was that the device was placed on the vehicle in an area which was accessible to the public and regarding which the petitioner lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy, and therefore the placement did not implicate the Fourth Amendment. The main opinion, however, rejected this argument, concluding that the officers encroached on a protected area in attaching the GPS device.

Justice Alito’s concurrence took issue with the approach in the main opinion, claiming that the Court concluded that the affixing of the GPS device constituted a search based upon the tort law of trespass to chattels.