Fighting for the Fourth Amendment

Fighting for the Fourth Amendment: Fourth Amendment Privacy Rights Preserved By The High Court

By: Christopher Carrion, CAIR-New York Civil Rights Intern

On January 23, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision to limit intrusive government and law enforcement surveillance tactics, thus defending an important aspect of our privacy and civil rights. The case, United States v. Jones, involved Antoine Jones, owner of a night club in Washington, D.C., who was suspected by the Metropolitan Police Department of trafficking narcotics. Police obtained a warrant authorizing the attachment of a GPS tracking device to Jones’s car. Despite the warrant having a 10 day expiration, the GPS device was attached on the 11th day.

Under the previous understanding of the law, a person had no “reasonable expectation of privacy” in a motor vehicle used on public streets (United States v. Knotts), meaning that law enforcement agencies had a blank check to conduct surveillance using electronic devices such as GPS systems, beepers, tracking beacons, etc., on anyone they wanted, for as long as they wanted, and for any reason, without a warrant. This is especially disturbing in light of our post 9/11 world where warrantless government surveillance is as legal as constitutionally protected speech, worship and assembly. Case in point: the NYPD’s inflammatory document, “Radicalization in the West.”

The Jones case highlighted the principles of privacy and the judicial oversight of law enforcement power. The 4th Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures in their person, houses, papers and effects. The decision by the Supreme Court signals a great victory for civil liberties; the government can no longer conduct surveillance on people without probable cause, and without a warrant.

The court cited trespass law to support their decision that the government violated the Constitution. This means that the government cannot trespass onto your vehicle (your effects) without a warrant or without your permission. The same reasoning also applies to your homes, your person (meaning body and clothes), and your papers (documents, briefcases etc.). People are now better protected from unwarranted, excessive, and invasive surveillance tactics.

This case involved the FBI placing a device on one person’s vehicle, however, since this is a Supreme Court
decision involving a question of the U.S. constitution, the ruling applies nationwide to law enforcement agencies everywhere, including the FBI, Homeland Security, and police forces like the NYPD. Although the decision was restricted to government planted GPS devices, it remains unclear what the legal requirements are regarding cell phone GPS or user/factory installed GPS on vehicles. The court did signal that those too might be within the grasp of the Constitution’s warrant requirement.

The court has stated that a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy can be diminished if they installed their own GPS device or used a cell phone. The legal implications behind this must now explored by the Supreme Court.