Can the police track you electronically while using your vehicle without a warrant? Is this a valid mode of surveillance since roads are public places? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against this practice in the case of United States vs. Jones, January 23, 2012. U.S. jurisprudence has persuasive effect in our jurisdiction (PHILIPPINE HEALTH CARE PROVIDERS, INC. vs. COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE, G.R. No. 167330, September 18, 2009]. US vs Jones is potentially important to us when our law enforcement authorities begin to use electronic means for surveillance and information-gathering.
In this case, a search warrant was secured allowing the installation of a Global-Positioning-System (GPS) tracking device on a Jeep registered to the defendants’ wife. This was supposed to be installed in a certain state and within 10 days. However, the GPS was installed 11 days later and in another state. In effect, the vehicle was tracked without a warrant for almost a month. Hence, by “means of signals from multiple satellites, the device established the vehicle’s location within 50 to 100 feet, and communicated that location by cellular phone to a Government computer. It relayed more than 2,000 pages of data over the 4-week period.”
The defendant was later convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy charges but this was overturned on appeal because of the “admission of the evidence obtained by warrantless use of the GPS device which, it said, violated the Fourth Amendment.” The government raised the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Fourth Amendment deals with the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Court held that a vehicle falls under the term “effects” and that the “Government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search.’” Placing the GPS on the vehicle was a physical occupation of private property for the purpose of obtaining information. And “such a physical intrusion would have been considered a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment xxx.”
The Government argued that the defendant “had no “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the area of the Jeep accessed by Government agents (its underbody) and in the locations of the Jeep on the public roads, which were visible to all.” The Court stated that the Fourth Amendment also relates to insuring “preservation of that degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendmentwas adopted.” It made a distinction with previous cases where electronic tracking devices were also installed on containers with the consent of a third party which somehow ended up with the defendant who accepted it. The transfer of the container with the unmonitored beeper inside did not convey any information and thus did not invade xxx privacy.” In this case, the defendant “who possessed the Jeep at the time the Government trespassorily inserted the information-gathering device, is on much different footing.”
The Government also points to a previous decision where “[t]he exterior of a car . . . is thrust into the public eye, and thus to examine it does not constitute a ‘search.’ ” The Court was unconvinced, finding that “xxx By attaching the device to the Jeep, officers encroached on a protected area.” In any event, the Court stated that it is not deviating “from the understanding that mere visual observation does not constitute a search” such that “[a] person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another.” This seems to raise the question, what is the real difference between the police tailing a suspect and placing a tracker on his car instead? It seems the difference is that a device was placed on the car without a warrant which appears to have been what the Court found objectionable. Law enforcement authorities do not have an untrammeled discretion to effect searches on citizens either through GPS or other physical means.
This can be a philandering husband’s worse nightmare, a GPS tracker attached to his car by his wife to trace his whereabouts. Unfortunately for him, this decision only targets possible excesses by law enforcement, not the possible actions of a suspicious spouse.