It’s not very often that the Supreme Court justices all agree on something that’s really good. On Monday, they ruled unanimously that the government has to get a search warrant before putting a GPS unit on your vehicle to track your movements. That this astonishingly obvious fact required a Supreme Court ruling says a great deal our government, under either party. You can read the full ruling here.
There were actually three written opinions, all of them agreeing on the outcome but with different means of reaching that conclusion. The controlling opinion was written by Justice Scalia and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Kennedy and Sotomayor. Sotomayor also wrote her own concurring opinion. And Justice Alito filed a concurring opinion, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan.
The case is really interesting for many reasons. And the government actually did get a warrant to place the GPS unit on the guy’s jeep, but the warrant said it had to be done within 10 days and in the city of Washington, DC. But they didn’t put it on until the 11th day and in a public lot in Maryland. The evidence was used at his trial, after which he was convicted, but both the U.S. District Court and the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the GPS evidence was inadmissible and the Supreme Court has now upheld those rulings.
The difference among the three opinions is a matter of scope. Scalia’s majority opinion was the most narrow; Alito’s concurrence was a bit broader; and Sotomayor’s solo concurrence was very broad. I don’t have time right now to go into detail, but you can read the rulings yourself.
It’s also interesting to note that this was yet another case where the Obama administration was clearly in the wrong on a key Bill of Rights issue. Obama’s solicitor general argued the case and filed the government’s brief arguing that putting a GPS on someone’s car is not a search at all under the 4th amendment. That the Supreme Court rejected that argument unanimously, right and left alike, speaks volumes about just how dangerous and crazy that position is.
And like Radley Balko, I should now admit that my fears about Sotomayor were unfounded. During her confirmation process, I several times noted that, based on her record as a federal prosecutor and a lower court judge, I was concerned that she would end up being too conservative on criminal justice cases. She has turned out, in her brief time on the court, to be quite the opposite. And I’m greatly relieved by that fact.