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Supreme Court Says Police Need Warrant For GPS Tracking

US Supreme Court Justices. Top row (left to right): Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito, and Associate Justice Elena Kagan. Bottom row (left to right): Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo: US Supreme Court, Public Domain.

By Voice of America, Reprinted By The Raleigh Telegram

WASHINGTON DC – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on January 23rd that American police must secure a search warrant before they track criminal suspects with the use of global positioning system technology.

The nation’s nine-member highest court unanimously decided that law enforcement officials would be violating suspects’ constitutional protection against unreasonable searches if they attached a GPS monitoring device to their cars without a court-approved search warrant.

The court made the ruling in a case in which an accused Washington, DC drug dealer was at first convicted, in part on evidence police had accumulated by tracking his movements for 28 days through use of a GPS device. Police spotted the suspect making frequent trips to a house where drugs and $1 million in cash were found. The police had obtained a warrant for use of the GPS device on his car, but the warrant expired before it was installed.

An appellate court had thrown out the suspect’s conviction, a ruling the Supreme Court upheld.

LAW PROFESSORS DISCUSS THE RULING

Law professor Christopher Slobogin at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, takes the story from there.

CHRISTOPHER SLOBOGIN: “Mr. Jones’ argued that that evidence was obtained illegally because the police did not have a warrant. And his argument was in essence that use of the tracking device was an unconstitutional search under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides that the government may not engage in unreasonable searches and seizures. Mr. Jones claimed that the absence of a warrant made this search unreasonable.”

And, says Professor Slobogin, the high court agreed.

CHRISTOPHER SLOBOGIN: “All nine members of the court, conservative members as well as liberal members, decided that the Fourth Amendment was violated in this case.”

But the ruling only dealt with the physical act of placing the GPS device on the vehicle and tracking Mr. Jones. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion and said the case did not require the court to decide if electronic monitoring without trespassing onto someone’s property is also a violation of privacy.

Law professor Renee Hutchins at the University of Maryland says that is a big question that remains to be answered. We spoke with her on Skype.

RENEE HUTCHINS: “Most people have smartphones. A lot of people have cars that have GPS pre-installed. So the government doesn’t have to do the installation. The installation, which was the hook for Justice Scalia, is already accomplished. We do it voluntarily.”

In the Supreme Court opinion, Justice Sonya Sotomayor suggested that modern technology may soon force us to reconsider expectations of privacy. Professor Hutchins explains.

RENEE HUTCHINS: “Justice Sotomayor, actually in talking about the modern society that we live in, said, you know, we really have to perhaps rethink what it means for things to be private in a world where we voluntarily give up so much information. In a world where there’s Facebook and GPS on your cell phone and GPS in your car, how should the court be thinking about constitutional protections in a world like that?”

Four other justices, led by Samuel Alito, questioned the wisdom of limiting the ruling only to a trespass of private property. They said the more important issue is the use of GPS for the purpose of long-term tracking.  ::

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Voice of America is a U.S. Government run news agency.

READ THE SUPREME COURT OPINION ONLINE: Click here [in PDF form]