A sharply-divided federal appeals court has upheld a ruling that police can’t use GPS to track a suspect’s vehicle without a warrant, rejecting a bid by the Justice Department to have the life sentence of a convicted drug dealer reinstated.
In a case closely watched by national civil liberties groups, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in a 5-4 decision upheld a lower court ruling that GPS data proved “essential to the government’s case” against Antoine Jones and a warrant was needed.
The decision, released late Friday without comment, came three months after a three-judge panel reversed the life sentence of Jones, who was convicted of running a drug ring from a D.C. nightclub. His lawyers had argued that the government’s use of GPS technology violated his “reasonable expectation of privacy.”
During the summer, U.S. Circuit Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg in writing for the majority said that a “reasonable person does not expect anyone to monitor and retain a record of every time he drives his car, including his origin, route, destination and each place he stops and how long he stays there.”
But the Justice Department disagreed, asking the entire panel of judges on the D.C. Circuit to overturn that ruling. The judges, in their 5-4 vote Friday, declined to reconsider the case.
“On behalf of Mr. Jones, we are gratified that the full court declined to hear the government’s appeal of Circuit Judge Ginsburg’s eloquent opinion,” Stephen C. Leckar, an attorney for Jones, wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Times.
In a dissenting opinion joined by three other judges, Chief Circuit Court Judge David Bryan Sentelle said the panel’s decision in the Jones case “is inconsistent not only with every other federal circuit which has considered the case, but more importantly, with controlling Supreme Court precedent. …”
Jones’ appeal was aided by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. According to information from the federal Bureau of Prisons, he remains in custody.
Jones was convicted of running a major drug ring from a since-razed nightclub on Montana Avenue in Northeast near the Metropolitan Police Department’s Fifth District headquarters. In court records, prosecutors argued that Jones and others communicated about drugs through a coded language captured on a wiretap — with words such as “VIPs,” “tickets” and “half-tickets” — which referred to amounts of cocaine.
But Jones and his attorney balked at the characterization, arguing in court that the government’s case relied on informants motivated to testify against Jones as a way to get leniency at sentencing in their own cases.
The Jones case also focused attention on serious flaws in how the D.C. government administers liquor licenses. Despite two past felony drug convictions, Mr. Jones was able to obtain a liquor license because the District only checks in the jurisdiction where an applicant lives and also in the District.
A Maryland resident, Jones had a felony drug case in Washington that was sealed when he applied for his liquor license, but a second case that was public record never surfaced because the it was filed in Virginia.