Concurring Opinions in Jones Lead FBI To Turn Off 3,000 GPS Devices, Considered a “Sea Change” Within the Bureau

Earlier today, I sent off to law reviews a new draft article on the implications of the mosaic theory of the Fourth Amendment introduced in the GPS case, United States v. Jones — and specifically the majority opinion for the DC Circuit (under the name United States v. Maynard ) and the concurring opinions of Justice Alito and Sotomayor. A recent speech by the general counsel of the FBI suggests that I’m not the only one who thinks that the mosaic theory is a really big deal — and a lot more complicated than many realize:

A Supreme Court decision has caused a “sea change” in law enforcement, prompting the FBI to turn off nearly 3,000 Global Positioning System (GPS) devices used to track suspects, according to the agency’s general counsel.

When the decision-U.S. v. Jones-was released at the end of January, agents were ordered to stop using GPS devices immediately and told to await guidance on retrieving the devices, FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann said in a recent talk at a University of San Francisco conference. Weissmann said the court’s ruling lacked clarity and the agency needs new guidance or it risks having cases overturned . . .

Weissmann said it wasn’t Scalia’s majority opinion that caused such turmoil in the bureau, but a concurring opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito. Alito, whose opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, agreed with the Court’s conclusion in the case but wrote separately because his legal reasoning differed from the majority.
Alito focused not on the attachment of the device, but the fact that law enforcement monitored Jones for about a month. Alito said “the use of longer-term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy.” . . .

In his talk at a University of San Francisco Law Review Symposium, Weissmann suggested that Alito’s concurrence means that several members of the court are concerned with long-term surveillance by technologies beyond GPS systems and that the FBI needs new guidance in order to ensure that evidence does not get thrown out.

“I just can’t stress enough,” Weissmann said, “what a sea change that is perceived to be within the department.”

He said that after agents were told to turn off the devices, his office had to issue guidance on how some of the devices that had been used without a warrant could actually be retrieved. “We had to come up with guidance about you could locate [the devices] without violating the law,” Weissmann said. “It wasn’t obvious that you could turn it back on to locate it because now you needed probable cause or reasonable suspicion to do that.”

Weissmann said the FBI is working on two memos for agents in the field. One seeks to give guidance about using GPS devices. A second one targets other technologies beyond the GPS, because, Weissmann said, “there is no reason to think this is just going to end with GPS.”

“I think the court did not wrestle with the problems their decision creates,” Weissmann said. “Usually the court tends to be more careful about cabining its decisions” and offering useful guidance. But in the Jones opinion, he said, the court didn’t offer much clarity or any bright line rules that would have been helpful to law enforcement.

“Guidance which consist of ‘two days might be good, 30 days is too long’ is not very helpful,” Weissmann said.

Good for Weissmann for speaking about these issues publicly. The FBI has tended to be too secretive about these issues in the past, I think. Anyway, I hope to post a draft of my new article in a week or two, and I’ll post a link to it at the blog when I do.