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News (Media Awareness Project) - US: Supreme Court Rules Warrant Needed For GPS Tracking
Title:US: Supreme Court Rules Warrant Needed For GPS Tracking
Published On:2012-01-24
Source:USA Today (US)
Fetched On:2012-01-27 06:02:20

Supreme Court rules warrant needed for GPS tracking

WASHINGTON - In a major decision on privacy in the digital age, the
Supreme Court ruled Monday that police need a warrant before attaching
a GPS device to a person's car.

The ruling, which marked the justices' first-ever review of GPS
tracking, was unanimous. The justices divided, however, on how the
Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures
applies to such high-tech tracking.

The case, which during November oral arguments prompted justices'
references to George Orwell's futuristic novel 1984, ensures that
police cannot use the Global Positioning System to continuously track
a suspect before presenting sufficient grounds and obtaining a warrant
from a judge.

Monday's decision specifically applies when police install a GPS
tracking device on a person's car, but five justices suggested in
concurring statements that a warrant might similarly be needed for
prolonged surveillance through smartphones or other devices with GPS

The Global Positioning System, originally developed for the military,
relies on satellites that transmit to receivers that calculate the
latitude and longitude of a location. A GPS device installed by police
can be used to follow a person 24 hours a day. Data can be collected
and analyzed far more efficiently and economically than if a team of
agents followed a person.

The court reversed the cocaine-trafficking conviction of a Washington,
D.C., nightclub owner. In 2005, police attached a GPS device to a Jeep
owned by Antoine Jones while it was parked in a public lot. Agents
then used evidence of Jones' travels over four weeks to help win the
conviction on conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

Civil libertarians and defense lawyers praised the ruling in United
States v. Jones. The "Fourth Amendment must continue to protect
against government intrusions even in the face of modern technological
surveillance tools," said Virginia Sloan, president of the
Constitution Project, which was among the groups that sided with
Jones. The Justice Department, which had appealed a lower court's
decision requiring a warrant for GPS tracking, had no public response
to the decision.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the main opinion for the court, said
"the government's physical intrusion on the Jeep" to obtain
information constitutes a search. He based his decision on the
original roots of Fourth Amendment protection for property against
government intrusions. Scalia was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts
and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor.

The four other justices, led by Samuel Alito, concurred only in the
judgment for Jones. Alito said the case would be better analyzed by
asking whether Jones' "reasonable expectations of privacy were
violated by the long-term monitoring of the movements of the vehicle
he drove."

Alito contended the attachment of the device was not itself an illegal
"search." Rather, he said, what matters is a driver's expectation of
privacy. "We need not identify with precision the point at which the
tracking of this vehicle became a search, for the line was surely
crossed before the 4-week mark," Alito wrote, joined by Justices Ruth
Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

Sotomayor, who fully joined Scalia's opinion, suggested in a
concurring statement that she agreed with parts of Alito's analysis,
which would cover privacy expectations not only when police affix a
device but when no physical invasion occurred. That could cover when
police access signals from a GPS-enabled smartphone.

"The bottom line is that any use of a GPS tracking device without a
warrant would be highly risky for law enforcement," said Walter
Dellinger, one of the lawyers who represented Jones.

Anthony Barkow, former director of the New York-based Center on the
Administration of Criminal Law, which sided with the Justice
Department, agreed. "Law enforcement will adjust and seek warrants" in
all but emergency situations.

The Justice Department had argued that drivers do not expect their
movements on public streets to be kept private, no matter the
duration, so GPS tracking should not fall under the Fourth Amendment
protections regarding searches and seizures. When the case was argued,
Justice Department lawyer Michael Dreeben insisted that the government
was not trying to obtain "24-hour surveillance of every citizen of the
United States."
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