Why United States v. Jones is Subject to So Many Different Interpretations

If anything is clear from the Supreme Court’s decision last week in United States v. Jones, it’s that not very much is clear from the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Jones. Reading over the commentary on Jones both in the print media and on blogs, I think I’ve seen just about every reaction (at least from enthusiasts of greater privacy, from which the commentariat is almost exclusively drawn). My favorite analysis so far is this new post from Tom Goldstein. I think it’s a real gem. But it’s only one view among many as to what the case means.

Why is Jones such a puzzling decision? I think there are two major reasons. First, Justice Scalia creates a new test for Fourth Amendment searches without being fully candid that he’s doing something quite new. Trespass has long been relevant to the Fourth Amendment search inquiry, to be sure. But the Court never embraced a straight trespass test, and even in the old days deviated from it (see Boyd, McGuire, etc). So this test is new. And yet Scalia writes his opinion as if a well-established trespass test existed that he is returning to, and that returning to it is some sort of obvious step. The disjunct between Scalia’s doctrinal innovation and his apparent incredulity that anyone could find his opinion confusing makes for some very strange reading.

For example, if you want to understand the new trespass test, you mostly have to read the footnotes — especially footnotes 3 and 5, which are responses to Alito’s concurrence. Here, though, Scalia is so dismissive of Alito’s critique that it’s hard to know why Scalia sees Alito’s questions as so obviously answered. Scalia is the one who is introducing a new test; presumably he’s the one who knows what the new test will look like. But these footnotes are filled with phrases indicating tremendous certainty: “no doubt,””quite irrelevant,” “undoubtedly occurred”, “undoutedly true, but undoubtedly irrelevant,” “similarly irrelevant,” etc. Such certainty makes it hard to know what principle Scalia is applying that makes him so certain he’s right.

The second reason Jones is so confusing is that Justice Alito spends only a single paragraph of his 14-page opinion explaining how he would resolve the Jones case. Most of his opinion is spent criticizing Scalia’s test in great detail. Alito makes some very good points in that section, I think. But we only get to how Alito would resolve the case in the middle of page 13, near the end. And in that one paragraph, Alito is surprisingly unclear as to what he is doing. Without giving the issue any analysis, Alito seems to assume that the reasonable expectation of privacy test is simply about what privacy a hypothetical reasonable person would think — a common error, as I have noted — and then he just says that this case has gone too far, in his view.

But the reader is left uncertain as to why. Is Alito embracing the DC Circuit’s novel “mosaic theory”? If so, isn’t such a revolutionary change in Fourth Amendment doctrine worth a bit of explanation? (Or does Alito not recognize the revolutionary nature of that approach?) And if the line is to be drawn, where and why? Like Justice Scalia, Alito uses a statement of judicial certainty as a substitute for analysis: “the line was surely crossed before the 4-week mark,” he says, emphasis added, with no explanation of why that is sure.

I don’t mean to be too critical of the Justices here. They’re generalists, not Fourth Amendment nerds. But I think these characteristics of the Jones opinions make the decision a Rorschach test. You can read the opinions in many different ways depending on what you want to read into them. And I think that explains why the commentary about Jones is all over the map.