District nightclub owner Antoine Jones had challenged his 2008 cocaine-distribution conviction, saying investigators violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they put a GPS on his Jeep without a valid warrant and tracked his movements for a month.
The Supreme Court unanimously said a warrant was needed in Jones' case, but split on the reasoning for that decision.
|Antoine Jones case timeline:|
|October 2005: Indicted on cocaine-distribution charges|
|January 2008: Convicted|
|May 2008: Sentenced to life in prison|
|August 2010: Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturns conviction and sentence|
|November 2011: Supreme Court hears oral arguments|
|January 2012: Supreme Court affirms the appeals court's decision|
|What's next: Case will go back to the U.S. District Court for D.C. for further proceedings, defense attorney. Jones is now serving his sentence in a federal prison in southwest Virginia.|
Planting the GPS constitutes a search, which means a warrant is required, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the court's majority opinion.
"The Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information," Scalia wrote. He said that officers "encroached on a protected area" by putting the GPS on the Jeep.
The decision is a "resounding victory for the Fourth Amendment," said Stephen Leckar, an attorney for Jones.
"In America, people don't expect that without a warrant the government will take their property and usurp it to get information in a criminal case," he said.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Scalia's opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor, didn't address whether police need a warrant for prolonged monitoring if the GPS is already in the car or in another device such as a cellphone.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the court should have focused on whether extended monitoring violated reasonable expectations of privacy.
"If long-term monitoring can be accomplished without committing a technical trespass -- suppose, for example, that the federal government required or persuaded auto manufacturers to include a GPS tracking device in every car -- the court's theory would provide no protection," Alito said in the opinion, which was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. Sotomayor, in a separate concurrence, said the physical trespass was a constitutional violation, and the case also raised privacy concerns.
Scalia said the court may need to decide such issues in a future case, "but there is no reason for rushing forward to resolve them here."
Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, said Scalia's opinion "builds a solid foundation that subsequent opinions can add to, and it leaves space for Congress to legislate."
Jones' case went to the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in Jones' favor in August 2010. Other circuit courts had upheld GPS tracking.
It's difficult to tell how many cases will be affected by the decision. Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben told the court during oral arguments that the number of GPS devices being used by law enforcement was "in the low thousands annually." Officials with D.C. police and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District said they did not know exactly how often the surveillance technique was used locally.
D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said in an email Monday that the department was taking "appropriate steps" to comply with the ruling. But adjusting surveillance methods will strain resources, said Kris Baumann, head of the D.C. police union. Baumann said he was disappointed by the decision.
"When we have an opportunity to use advances in technology, we take it," he said.