United States Supreme Court Holds GPS Tracking Requires a Warrant

Two weeks ago on January 23, 2012, the United States Supreme Court handed down its much anticipated decision in United States v. Jones regarding the use of GPS tracking devices.  The Court unanimously held that police had performed a Fourth Amendment search when they attached a Global Positioning System device (GPS) to a suspect’s car, without a valid search warrant, and then used the device to monitor the car’s movements for four weeks.

The facts of this case are pretty straight forward:  Antoine Jones was suspected of trafficking drugs and as such became the subject of a joint investigation by the FBI and a local Washington, D.C. police task force.  As part of that investigation, the police installed a GPS tracking device on car registered to Jones’ wife.  While there was a warrant issued, it authorized the installation of the device within 10 days while the car was in the District of Columbia.  The GPS was installed after the warrant had expired and in the state of Maryland.  Thereafter, the police used the GPS device to monitor Jones’ movement for twenty-eight days and collected over two thousand pages of data which was used to convict Jones in District Court of conspiracy.

Why is the use of a GPS to track a suspect’s movements in an investigation a “search”?

It is important to understand what the Fourth Amendment protects, specifically the “right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.”  Here, the Court held that Jones’ vehicle was an “effect” and the placement of the GPS device to obtain information was a “search.”

To bolster this reasoning, the Court stated that “[t]he Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information.”  The Court also distinguished Jones from other cases involving electronic tracking technology, such as United States v. Knotts, 460 U. S. 276, 281 (1983), and United States v. Karo, 468 U. S. 705 (1984).  It noted that there was no trespass involved in the installation of the tracking device in either Knotts or Karo.  Additionally, the Court noted that the Government did not just monitor the location, but actively collected data over twenty-eight days in addition to the trespass involved in the installation of the GPS device.

So, what does this mean?  First, it means that in order to monitor a suspect using GPS, there must be a valid warrant.  It also means that in cases where information has been obtained using a GPS without a valid warrant, the information obtained should be suppressed.  Finally, this case suggests a move back towards protecting the rights of the individual against unlawful law enforcement intrusion.  As technology becomes a more pervasive investigatory tool, this decision will surely have far reaching effects into the future.

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