Supreme Court Cases 2011-2012 Term

Article excerpt

During the current term, the Supreme Court decided cases of importance to law enforcement, including those involving procedure, substantive law, and law enforcement liability. In one case with immediate consequences, the Court ruled that attaching a Global Positioning System (GPS) device on the undercarriage of a car constituted a Fourth Amendment search. The Court elaborated further on the role of Miranda in interviews occurring in a prison setting, as well as the government's duty to produce potentially exculpatory evidence under Brady. In a civil suit against law enforcement officers, the Court addressed the proper role of qualified immunity and whether the law was clearly defined at the time the government acted. Also, the Court struck down a substantive criminal statute as being violative of the First Amendment.

This article provides a brief synopsis of each of these cases, as well as a summary of cases of interest to law enforcement that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear in the 2012-2013 term. As always, law enforcement agencies must ensure that their own state laws and constitutions have not provided greater protections than the U.S. constitutional standards.


United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012)

In this case the U.S. Supreme Court revived the doctrine that a physical intrusion by the government into a constitutionally protected area for the purpose of gathering information is a Fourth Amendment search, a principle most courts had considered subsumed by the reasonable expectation of privacy standard. As part of a drug conspiracy investigation, officers obtained a warrant from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to install a tracking device on a vehicle used by Jones but registered to his wife. The tracking device was to be placed on the vehicle within 10 days. Eleven days after the court order was issued, officers placed the GPS device on the vehicle while it was in Maryland. (1) The device provided officers with 2,000 pages of location data over the next 4 weeks. Jones' motion to suppress the GPS information was denied; he was convicted and then appealed. The court of appeals reversed the conviction, finding the warrantless use of the GPS device in violation of the Fourth Amendment. (2) The appellate court held that the use of the GPS device was a search where Jones had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements over an extended period of time. (3)


The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the use of the GPS was a search under the Fourth Amendment, but filed separate opinions with divergent reasons in support of that conclusion. The majority opinion written by Justice Scalia relied on an originalist interpretation finding the vehicle to be an "effect" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and the attachment of the GPS device to a vehicle by government agents to gather information to be a trespass and, therefore, a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. "The Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a 'search' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted." (4) The opinion expresses that the original theory of governmental trespass as a basis for a Fourth Amendment violation had not been replaced by the theory of "reasonable expectation of privacy" developed in United States v. Katz. (5) In Katz the court found that the government had violated the Fourth Amendment by placing without a warrant a covert microphone on a public phone booth to overhear a suspect's telephone conversation. Katz and cases following it expanded the protection of the Fourth Amendment beyond "persons, houses, papers and effects" (as expressly listed in the Fourth Amendment) and held that the amendment protected people and their reasonable expectation of privacy in less concrete matters, like conversations, telephone calls, and e-mails. …