The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in United States v. Jones, a case that will determine whether the government has the right to use GPS devices to track the locations of criminal suspects without a warrant.
Several justices reportedly expressed concern over the government’s argument, but Justice Stephen Breyer seemed particularly unnerved, bringing George Orwell into the legal debate.
The Hill reports that Breyer told U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben that “if you win this case, then there is nothing to prevent the police or the government from monitoring, 24 hours a day, the public movement of every citizen of the United States.”
“So if you win,” Breyer continued, “you suddenly produce what sounds like ‘1984,’ from their brief.”
The case arose after the FBI placed a GPS tracking device on a car belonging to Antoine Jones, a Washington, D.C. nightclub owner suspected of dealing cocaine.
Although a federal judge did sign a warrant, FBI agents placed the device on their suspect’s car a day after the warrant expired. Jones was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but an appeals court later found that the government’s actions violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
Wired magazine adds that in order to make its argument, the government is relying on a specific case in which the Supreme Court validated the government’s right to use beepers called “bird dogs” to track citizens without a warrant.
Jones’ attorney, however, told the court that GPS tracking is different. While the older-technology beepers simply indicate proximity, GPS trackers can monitor movement constantly, around the clock, for an indefinite period of time.
Justice Antonin Scalia asked Jones’ attorney how GPS tracking violates Fourth Amendment rights any more than other, widely accepted, police behavior.
Law enforcement officers, Scalia said, “can do a lot of stuff that is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
“Why is this an invasion of privacy?”