The Supreme Court ruled Monday that police need to get a search warrant before installing a GPS device on private property used to tail a suspect, siding with a D.C. nightclub owner convicted in what authorities had called the largest cocaine seizure in city history.
Sentenced to life in prison, Antoine Jones’ attorneys argued that the club owner’s right to privacy was violated when federal agents attached a GPS device to his wife’s vehicle without a warrant.
In unanimously upholding the reversal of Jones’ conviction, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the installation of a GPS device “constitutes a ‘search.’ “
“It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case: the government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information,” Justice Scalia wrote. “We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the government had “usurped Jones’ property for the purpose of conducting surveillance on him, thereby invading privacy interests long afforded, and undoubtedly entitled to, Fourth Amendment protection.”
Jones’ attorney on appeal, Stephen Leckar, called the decision “a great day for the Fourth Amendment.”
“And it was a pleasure to read the several opinions, including the robust concurrences of Justices Sotomayor and Alito,” he said.
Jones remains in prison and his immediate fate is unclear. William Miller, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, said the office is “carefully reviewing the court’s opinion and evaluating its options.”
In court filings months before the Supreme Court’s decision after an appeals court ruled in his favor, Jones sought to be released, noting job offers from an area car dealership and as a counselor for the Peaceoholics Outreach Foundation. Prosecutors said he ought to remain in prison, arguing in court papers he is not eligible for release and that even without the GPS evidence, they still have a case against him.
Jones was convicted of running a major drug ring from a since-razed nightclub on Montana Avenue in Northeast within sight of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Fifth District headquarters.
The Jones case also focused attention on flaws in how the D.C. government administers liquor licenses. Despite two past felony drug convictions, Jones was able to obtain a liquor license because the District at the time only conducted background checks in the jurisdiction where an applicant lives and also in the District.
A Maryland resident, Jones had a felony drug case in Washington that was sealed when he applied for his liquor license, and a second case that was public record but never surfaced because it was filed in Virginia.
But it was Jones’ appeal charging that his constitutional rights to privacy were violated that won his case national attention, as well as support from groups as varied as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Gun Owners of America Inc.
The decision Monday won praise from civil liberties and privacy groups, while the executive director for the Fraternal Order of Police expressed disappointment.
Steven R. Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend of the court brief on Jones’ behalf, called the ruling “an important victory for privacy.”
“A majority of the court acknowledged that advancing technology, like cellphone tracking, gives the government unprecedented ability to collect, store and analyze an enormous amount of information about our private lives,” he said, adding that Congress needs to “address the problem as well.”
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said, “Obviously, we’re disappointed.”
“What law enforcement officers across the country are going to have to do is continue to be as innovative and proactive as possible in doing their jobs within the framework of the Supreme Court decision.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the decision “highlights the many new privacy threats posed by new technologies and the pressing need to update our federal privacy laws.”
• Jim McElhatton can be reached at email@example.com.
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