Supreme Court will hear case on GPS tracking, warrants, and the 4th Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for November 8, 2011 in United States v. Jones, an appeal by the government of an August 2010 D.C. Circuit Court ruling that continuous monitoring of a GPS tracking device placed on a suspected drug trafficker’s vehicle without a warrant violated the suspect’s 4th Amendment rights. The diversity of opinions by courts at multiple levels over the past couple of years helped to increase the probability that the Supreme Court would take up the issue, as the cases brought before the courts address classes of technology and tracking capabilities that go far beyond what was envisioned when the current laws were enacted or when major precedent cases like United States v. Knotts were decided. A recent New York Times article calls United States v. Jones “the most important 4th Amendment case in a decade” and invokes comparisons of the government’s efforts to use comprehensive surveillance technologies to the “Big Brother” state described in George Orwell’s 1984. Perhaps more notable is the potential for the Supreme Court’s attention to these issues to prompt a more comprehensive review of the outdated laws and regulatory practices that are so often unsuccessfully applied to modern communications technologies. Some members of Congress have repeatedly tried to get traction on overhauling the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), enacted in 1986, to bring its provisions in line with current technology and possibly revised social norms and standards about what constitutes reasonable expectations of privacy. These efforts often focus on geolocation data, which while certainly not the only product of new technology poorly addressed by current laws, seems to bring about multiple perspectives and open questions. Beyond the disposition of the current case, it will be interesting to see if judicial action prompts any legislative response.