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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Reader Comments

Tue, Jan 31, 2012

Detect and smash it? Toss it off a bridge? Stick it on another car? Why THAT would be interfering with an investigation and land you in jail for sure! No - once a police state, there's very limited recourse. You're just going to have to learn your new place...

Tue, Jan 31, 2012

Police can put a GPS tracker on your car, but you can be arrested for taking pictures or recording videos of them in public places. Wow - police power even Hitler never dreamed of. And who's actually BEHIND all these expanded police powers and prerogatives?? The police UNIONS, exercising so much influence over local legislative bodies, that they can drive such ordnances into effect even when likely to be overturned (eventually, AFTER considerable expense to the taxpayers) in the courts.

Thu, Jan 12, 2012 Suzie Easter Arizona

There is a reasonable expectation of privacy in a car. That's why it cannot be searched without a warrant, with some limited exceptions. Therefore, this judge is clearly incorrect and the decision needs to be reversed. This goes to show that our judges need extensive training on the Constitution from someone like David Barton.

Thu, Jan 12, 2012 watchdog

Careful what rights you give up! Local cops and sheriffs are always looking for ways to enhance revenue. Notice how well equipped they have become; i.e., lasers, vehicle internet, high-speed tag readers, military-grade weaponry! And they are so polite as they slam suspects to the ground. My local sherriff's SWAT team might be able to take the local military base, at least for a short time. Very interesting that the current White House team is pushing for warrantless GPS monitoring, too.

Mon, Jan 9, 2012

If it is legal for the government to put a GPS device on someone's private property (vehicle) then it will be legal for the government to put a door magnet ad for Coca-Cola on your vehicle as well!

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