Court ruling on GPS tracking: Is Big Brother in the driver's seat?

Just how private are your whereabouts when you're in your car? A federal judge has already ruled on the question, and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to issue its own ruling in a similar case this term.

Magistrate David Noce ruled late last month that the FBI was not required to get a warrant when it attached a Global Positioning System device to a suspect's car to keep track of his movements, Wired reports. The device was installed onto the car of Fred Robinson, who was under suspicion of "being illegally paid as a 'ghost' employee on the Payroll of the St. Louis City Treasurer's Office," Noce wrote in his decision.

The case turned on whether the installation of the GPS device was a "search" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment's ban on "unreasonable search and seizure." Robinson had argued that the FBI needed to obtain a search warrant for the GPS in order to comply with the Constitution.

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Noce disagreed, ruling that there is no "reasonable expectation of privacy" in a car. He added that since the GPS tracker was installed via "non-invasive" means while the car was on a public street and only revealed the vehicle's location, the case didn't fit the Fourth Amendment definition of the word "search."

A federal appeals court in a similar case came to a different conclusion last year when it reversed the conviction of convicted drug dealer Antoine Jones, according to Wired. That court ruled that Jones' Fourth Amendment rights had been violated when authorities placed a GPS tracking device on his car without obtaining a warrant.

The Supreme Court agreed to take up Jones' case and held oral arguments last November. Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben argued on behalf of the Obama administration that people's movements in public are not protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Several justices expressed skepticism about that line of argument, invoking fears of an all-seeing Orwellian Big Brother. "If you win this case, there is nothing to prevent the police or government from monitoring 24 hours a day every citizen of the United States," said Justice Stephen Breyer. It "sounds like 1984."

Oral arguments in the case involved several hypothetical examples. Would it be constitutional, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked, for the government to put a computer chip in a person's overcoat? Dreeben drew a line there, saying that would be an invasion of privacy because it would allow monitoring inside a person's home, a place to which the Fourth Amendment attaches special significance.

In its argument in Jones' case, the Obama administration cited the the 1983 decision United States v. Knotts, in which the high court approved the use of warrantless beepers to track suspects. The difference in this case, Wired reports, is that GPS tracking is entirely robotic whereas the beepers, also known as bird dogs, require observation by humans.

The technology angle presents a novel twist in these cases, but the Supreme Court has ruled in a line of decisions dating back to 1925 that there is a motor vehicle exception to the Fourth Amendment allowing for searches without a warrant if a police officer has probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence.

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