Supreme Court Ban on Warrantless GPS Tracking Has Wider Implications

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-01-23 Print this article Print

The U.S. Supreme Court released a unanimous opinion on tracking suspects using GPS locaters attached to cars, saying it is unlawful to initiate a GPS search without a warrant.

The U.S. Supreme Court released a unanimous opinion on tracking suspects using GPS locaters attached to cars, saying it is unlawful to initiate a GPS search without a warrant.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision released on Jan. 23 will have a significant impact on how law enforcement officers can use GPS technology to track criminal suspects in a wide variety of cases.

In this case, the use of a GPS location device attached to the bottom of a car driven by a suspect allegedly to conduct drug deals was considered a violation of the suspect's Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. But in some ways the case raises more questions than it answers.

The case in question was the conviction of Antoine Jones for drug trafficking. The police asked for and received a warrant for the GPS tracking in the District of Columbia good for 10 days. However, the police didn't actually manage to affix the device to the vehicle being used by Jones until 11 days later, in a parking lot in Maryland. The trial court accepted the GPS evidence, which helped locate the place where Jones stored his drugs, but that was overturned on appeal, as was the conviction.

The Supreme Court, in deciding the case, took the most narrow possible view. The reasoning behind the decision was that the act of attaching the GPS device after the warrant expired constituted an illegal search. Essentially, the court reasoned that by touching Jones' car, the police effectively seized his effects without a warrant, which is one of the things that the Fourth Amendment says you can't do. The Fourth Amendment says "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." All such seizures require a properly sworn warrant issued by a court, the amendment says.

It's worth noting that there was a significant split on the court regarding how far the opinion should go. For example, the majority of the court specifically didn't address whether tracking a car through a built-in GPS device, such as the GM OnStar system that has the ability to report a car's location, or through the position of a cell phone, either through a built-in GPS or through triangulation would be an illegal search.

However, the court did give some indication of the direction it might take if such cases were to come before it. The court noted that constant surveillance from a public place, such as following a suspect, or posting cameras in public places, was not a search. The GPS case was a search specifically because the location device was physically placed on the suspect's car by the police, who then tracked it for a month.

On the other hand, some of the justices wrote that tracking without having to place a tracking device on the car may itself have been an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.

Wayne Rash Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.

He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.

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