Supreme Court: Planting GPS tracker on a car is 'search,' requires warrant

A unanimous Supreme Court has ruled that installing a Global Positioning System tracking device on a suspect’s car constitutes a search and requires a warrant, applying an 18th century guarantee against unreasonable searches to a 21st century technology.

The decision upholds the reversal of Washington nightclub owner Antoine Jones’ conviction on federal drug trafficking charges obtained in the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court with the use of data from a GPS tracking device.

In a separate case in St. Louis, a federal judge recently had decided the other way, ruling that installing a GPS device did not constitute a search.


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Although government had argued in the Jones case that using the device was not significantly different from visually tracking the suspect’s movements in public, the justices ruled that that installing a device to collect data from the satellite-based GPS was a search rather than surveillance.

The tracking device sent more than 2,000 pages of location data by cell phone to a government computer over a four-week period in 2005.

“The government’s attachment of the GPS device to the vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment,” the court ruled in a decision released Jan. 23.

Although the growing use of GPS technology in mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets has raised privacy issues over companies’ use of this data, the justices did not address the issue of privacy in the majority opinion. It relied instead on whether the placement of the device by law enforcement constitutes a search, and if so whether the defendant’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure were violated.

A satellite positioning system uses a constellation of satellites, usually in middle Earth orbits, that continuously broadcast orbital information and time signals. Earth-based receivers picking these signals up compare the time a signal was sent with the time it was received to determine its distance from the satellite. Comparing signals from several satellites at the same time can yield a triangulated position, usually with an accuracy of several meters. This information can be augmented with data from other satellite or ground-based systems to provide greater accuracy.

The U.S. military’s GPS currently is the only fully operational Global Navigation Satellite System, although several other countries are in the process of developing competing systems. The technology has been used in popular stand-alone directional service products and embedded in many consumer devices, providing potentially life-saving information from cell phones in making emergency calls to 911 services. They also are used increasingly to deliver location-aware services and advertising to mobile computing devices such as smart phones, and service providers can gather and mine this data.

In the case before the court, police used their own device attached to a vehicle to track its movements. In the opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and associate justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor, they ruled that in placing the device police encroached on a protected area — in this case Jones’ vehicle, which requires a court warrant to be legal.

The police had a warrant to use the tracking device, but they did not place the device until after the deadline in the warrant, and outside the prescribed location. The government conceded that the warrant was not valid at that time the device was placed but argued that no warrant was needed.

The trial court barred the introduction of tracking information gathered while the vehicle was parked at the defendant’s home but allowed the use of data gathered elsewhere, where the defendant had no expectation of privacy. Jones was convicted in 2007 and received a life sentence.

The Appeals Court reversed the conviction, holding that the tracking evidence was the product of an unconstitutional wireless search. The Supreme Court upheld the Appeals Court decision, finding that even though the defendant had no reasonable expectations of privacy on public streets, placement of the tracking device on the car violated the Fourth Amendment protections without regard to the privacy argument.

“What we apply is an 18th century guarantee against unreasonable searches, which we believe must provide at a minimum the degree of protection it afforded when it was adopted,” Scalia wrote for the majority.
 
Justices Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan concurred in the decision, although they issued a separate opinion based on privacy protections.

 

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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