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Attaching GPS Device to Vehicle Constitutes a Search Under the Fourth Amendment

February 14, 2012, by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

In United States v. Jones, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that attaching a GPS device to a defendant's car to track their movements constitutes a "search" under the Fourth Amendment.

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Antoine Jones was a drug defendant convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine after police installed a GPS device on his Jeep. While cars generally are held to a lower standard than other private property, Justice Scalia opined that "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." Therefore, the police were required to have a warrant before the GPS device was attached, leading the Supreme Court's blog to call the case's outcome a "big loss for the Federal government." In her concurring opinion, Justice Sotomayor added that even in the absence of a trespass, the Fourth Amendment applies when a defendant's reasonable expectation of privacy has been violated.

The ACLU lauded the decision, exclaiming that a "majority of the court acknowledged that advancing technology, like cell phone tracking, gives the government unprecedented ability to collect, store, and analyze and enormous amount of information about our private lives."

Supreme Court Set to Tackle Issue of Warrantless GPS Searches by Law Enforcement

November 14, 2011, by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

Warrantless surveillance is not what it once was. In the past, law enforcement had to physically follow persons of interest and typically were forced to rely on memory and notes when recalling that information later. Now, with GPS systems, surveillance is not subject to human error or manpower. This technological development has led to a case reaching the U.S. Supreme court to mete out whether GPS surveillance should require a warrant (U.S. v. Jones).

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According to the Associated Press in an article titled "High Court Troubled by Warrantless GPS Tracking" (November 9, 2011), the hearing on warrantless GPS tracking was made personal to the U.S. Supreme Court's Justices when they were told that law enforcement could place GPS devices on all of their vehicles without a judge's approval. The Justices all expressed grave misgivings about the amount of information that can be amassed through computers and the repercussions this could have on citizens. Justice Breyer summed up these fears by stating, "...if you win this case then there is nothing to prevent the police or the government from monitoring 24 hours a day the public movement of every citizen of the United States."

While the misgivings seem to be shared by the Justices, the solution did not appear easily reached. Prior court decisions have held that warrants were not needed to track a person's vehicle with a beeper or a team of agents, because there was not an expectation of privacy in public. Now, with computer technology becoming so advanced, police can collect an immense amount of information with little effort and no human error.

While many will agree that limits need to be set, there is plenty of debate on what those limitations should be and how they should be administered. Justice Department Attorney Dreeben stated that lawmakers should make the limitations, not the Court ("High Court," 2011). Others expressed concern about making law enforcement's job more difficult.
The issue before the Justices is a two-fold question: 1) is a warrant needed prior to installing a GPS device, and 2) is a warrant needed to in order to use a GPS to track a vehicle. The Court is expected to render their opinion on the issue in the spring of 2012.