Fortunately, the government did not win the case. But the court's unanimous decision, announced on Monday, may not delay Breyer's '1984' scenario for long. Unless the court moves more boldly to restrain government use of new surveillance technologies, the Framers' notion of a private sphere protected from "unreasonable searches and seizures" will become increasingly quaint.
The case decided this week involved Antoine Jones, a Washington, D.C., nightclub owner who was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 2008 and sentenced to life in prison based largely on information that investigators obtained by surreptitiously attaching a GPS tracking device to his Jeep Grand Cherokee. All nine justices agreed that a warrant was constitutionally required for this surveillance, but they offered two different rationales.
The majority opinion, written by Antonin Scalia and joined by four other justices, emphasized the intrusion on Jones' car. "The government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information," Scalia wrote. "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."
The majority therefore concluded that it was unnecessary to resolve the question of whether Jones had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" regarding his travels on public roads. By contrast, the four other justices, in an opinion by Samuel Alito, said he did, given that investigators tracked all his movements for a month -- a kind of surveillance that can reveal a great deal of information about sensitive subjects such as medical appointments, psychiatric treatment and political, religious or sexual activities.
While Scalia's approach draws a clear line that cops may not cross without a warrant, it does not address surveillance technologies that involve no physical intrusion, such as camera networks, satellites, drone aircraft and GPS features in cars and smartphones. If police had tracked Jones by activating an anti-theft beacon or following his cellphone signal, they could have obtained the same evidence without touching his property.