Reflections on the Oral Argument in United States v. Jones, the GPS Fourth Amendment Case

I was at the Supreme Court this morning for the oral argument in United States v. Jones, the GPS case. In this post, I want to blog my reactions to the argument: I’m going to update the post as I go, so general readers can get the important stuff first at the top and then general readers can get the rest down the page.

1) My basic reaction was that the outcome was too close to call. The Justices gave both sides a very hard time, and few Justices tipped their hand. The Justices pushed Michael Dreeben (arguing for the United States) on the consequences of his argument: If the Government was right, they noted, then the government can install a GPS device on all the Justices’ cars and watch them, too, along with everybody else. They pushed Steve Leckar (arguing for Jones) on the difficulty of identifing a clear Fourth Amendment principle to distinguish visual surveillance from GPS surveillance. The votes were hard to count, but if you had to summarize a reaction of the Court as a whole, I would say that the Justices were looking to find a principle to regulate GPS surveillance but unconvinced (at least as of the argument) that there was a legal way to get there without opening up a Pandora’s Box of unsettling lots of long settled practices.

2) The Justice who most clearly showed his cards was Justice Scalia. Justice Scalia made clear that he would overrule Katz v. United States; make common law of trespass the test for what is a search; and say that the installation of the device was a search because it was a technical trespass. Even if Katz can’t be overturned, Scalia indicated, at the very least the common law of trespass should be a floor of Fourth Amendment protection: Katz should be allowed to go beyond the original Fourth Amendment but not erode it. Cf. Kyllo v. United States. At the same time, Justice Scalia made equally clear that he thought the use of the device after installation was not a Fourth Amendment problem. What is invasive and scary isn’t a search, Scalia emphasized, and the kind of line-drawing as to when use of a GPS device should be allowed is quintessentially a legislative question. So Scalia is on board for saying that installation of the device is a search, but no more. (As an aside, it’s not at all clear that the original public meaning of the Fourth Amendment operated on a common law of trespass principle. Warren Court opinions liked to describe pre-Warren Court decisions as adopting such a principle, and that has led many to believe that the Fourth Amendment underwent a transition in the 1960s from protecting property to protecting privacy. But if you go back and read the cases, that narrative — pushed most strongly by justice Brennan in Warden v. Hayden — is plainly inaccurate. The early cases usually rejected common law trespass as a principle, much as post-Katz cases do. More on that in a future post.)

3) Other justices gave a more mixed reaction to Justice Scalia’s idea of regulating the installation of the device as a search under the technical trespass doctrine. Justices Alito and Kagan seemed particularly skeptical. Both pointed out that this solution wouldn’t necessarily work in the long run: If technology advanced and the government created a new surveillance tool that could obtain the same information without a technical trespass, then the government would have the same power as before. Alito and Kagan also both pressed Leckar on whether it would be a search or seizure to attach an inert device to a suspect’s car (that is, a device with no monitoring system). Leckar conceded that this would be a different case, which drew a comment from Justice Kagan that Leckar was really focused on the use of the GPS device, not the installation.

4) Justice Breyer’s reaction was about as far from Scalia’s as you could get. Justice Breyer didn’t buy the technical trespass doctrine, and he wanted to bypass the question of what is a “search” or “seizure” and just ask what is “reasonable.” Breyer seemed to think that the earlier decisions like Karo and Knotts had been about that, as well, which was mistaken: Those cases were primarily about what is a “search,” not when a search is reasonable. (It’s true that the test for what is a search is whether the government conduct violated a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” but that’s a term of art used interchangeably with the phrase “legitimate expectation of privacy” — the word “reasonable” in that term of art is very different from the general balancing test of reasonableness that applies once a search or seizure has been identified.) Anyway, Breyer was therefore looking for some sort of way to say when GPS monitoring was reasonable and desirable, rather than what was a constitutional search or seizure. I don’t think he really found an answer that satisfied him on either side.

5) Justice Sotomayor and Ginsburg were both very worried about the Big Brother implication of using GPS devices: I counted 5 or so references to Orwell’s 1984. At the same time, both were struggling to identify exactly what the constitutional rule was that would regulate GPS monitoring. Merely watching a suspect in a city street was obviously not a search or seizure. Does that change if you switch to video cameras? Lots of cameras? Beepers? GPS devices? Where do you draw the line? Counsel for Jones suggested that the Court could say that this case was a search or seizure but leave open the other cases, but the Justices wanted clearer answers than that. And there was some frustration at the inability to draw constitutional lines from the defendant’s side: At one point Justice Sotomayor responded to one of the defense’s proposed lines by proclaiming, “What an unworkable rule tethered to no principle!”

6) The “mosaic theory” adopted by the D.C. Circuit didn’t seem to go anywhere with the Justices. I think the only Justice who mentioned it during Dreeben’s argument was Chief Justice Roberts. Roberts’ question was straight out of the defense-side briefs, arguing that GPS surveillance over a long period allowed the government to assemble a mosaic, and was much cheaper and easier for the government than the beeper surveillance in Knotts. At the same time, I couldn’t tell if Roberts was asking those questions just to see Dreeben’s response or because he genuinely was sympathetic to the defense side. The mosaic theory came up a bit during Leckar’s argument, but the Justices were mostly very skeptical: As Justice Scalia proclaimed, echoing Judge Sentelle below in his dissent from denial of rehearing en banc, “100 times zero is still zero.” Leckar took the hint and didn’t press the mosaic theory much during his argument.

7) One of the major questionsin the case is how the Justices view the prospect of future statutory regulation. It was clear that a lot of the Justices were deeply worried about the 1984 scenario, and were looking to find a sensible way to regulate GPS surveillance with a constitutional rule if it’s necessary to avoid 1984. Arguing for the government, one of Dreeben’s responses was that these were just the kind of problems that Congress could deal with: If everyone is spooked by the possibility of GPS surveillance, then that is all the more reason for the elected branches to act. It was hard to know exactly what the Justices thought of this: They know they can’t control if Congress acts. If they decide that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply because they expect statutory regulation to deal with this, what happens if they are wrong? I tend to think that it’s very likely that Congress would act pretty swiftly to regulate GPS surveillance for the reasons explained in this article, but it’s an question of guessing what the future might look like and I suspect different Justices will look at it differently.