Legal Reference

High court: Warrant needed for GPS tracking


High court: Warrant needed for GPS tracking

Jan. 23, 2012 11:27 AM

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that police must get a search warrant before using GPS technology to track criminal suspects.

The decision was a defeat for the government and police agencies, and it raises the possibility of serious complications for law enforcement nationwide, which increasingly relies on high tech surveillance of suspects, including the use of various types of GPS technology.

A GPS device installed by police on Washington, D.C., nightclub owner Antoine Jones' Jeep helped them link him to a suburban house used to stash money and drugs. He was sentenced to life in prison before the appeals court overturned the conviction.

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said that the government's installation of a GPS device, and its use to monitor the vehicle's movements, constitutes a search, meaning that a warrant is required.

"By attaching the device to the Jeep" that Jones was using, "officers encroached on a protected area," Scalia wrote. He concluded that the installation of the device on the vehicle without a warrant was a trespass and therefore an illegal search.

All nine justices agreed that the GPS monitoring on the Jeep violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure, a decision the American Civil Liberties Union said was an "important victory for privacy."

Washington lawyer Andy Pincus called the decision "a landmark ruling in applying the Fourth Amendment's protections to advances in surveillance technology." Pincus has argued 22 cases before the Supreme Court and filed a brief in the current case on behalf of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil liberties group with expertise in law, technology, and policy.

Scalia wrote the main opinion of three in the case. He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor.

Sotomayor also wrote one of the two concurring opinions that agreed with the outcome in the Jones case for different reasons.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote, in the other concurring opinion, that the trespass was not as important as the suspect's expectation of privacy. Police monitored the Jeep's movements over the course of four weeks after attaching the GPS device.

"The use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy," Alito wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. Sotomayor in her concurring opinion specifically said she agreed with Alito on this conclusion.

Alito added, "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 four-week mark."

Regarding the issue of duration, Scalia wrote that "we may have to grapple" with those issues in the future, "but there is no reason for rushing forward to resolve them here."

Alito also said the court should address how expectations of privacy affect whether warrants are required for remote surveillance using electronic methods that do not require the police to install equipment, such as GPS tracking of mobile telephones. [Remember the only reason almost all cell phones have GPS devices in them is Federal law requires it. The Feds says the GPS devices are there to protect the cell phone users. That is 100 percent BS. The Feds require GPS devices so the cops can track suspected criminals] Alito noted, for example, that more than 322 million cellphones have installed equipment that allows wireless carriers to track the phone's location.

"If long-term monitoring can be accomplished without committing a technical trespass -- suppose for example, that the federal government required or persuaded auto manufacturers to include a GPS tracking device in every car -- the court's theory would provide no protection," Alito said.

Sotomayor agreed. "It may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to their parties," she said.

A federal appeals court in Washington had overturned Jones's drug conspiracy conviction because police did not have a warrant when they installed a GPS device on his vehicle and then tracked his movements for a month. The Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court.

The case is U.S. v. Jones, 10-1259.


Supreme Court: Police need warrant to use GPS tracking on cars

January 23, 2012 | 8:28 am

The Supreme Court on Monday put the brakes on the government’s use of high-tech monitoring devices to track motorists, ruling unanimously that police and the FBI violated the 4th Amendment by attaching a GPS device to a Jeep owned by a drug suspect.

The justices all agreed that the government needs a search warrant from a judge before it seeks to track a suspect by secretly installing a device on his car.

U.S. Justice Antonin ScaliaThey were divided, however, as to what level of tracking would require a search warrant. Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking for a five-member majority, said the police erred because they attached the tiny device to the vehicle. He said the 4th Amendment was intended to protect against government searches on private property.

"We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,'" Scalia said. “The government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information,” he said.

Such a search is unconstitutional unless officers obtained a search warrant from a judge. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor joined Scalia’s opinion.

Meanwhile, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said he would go further and rule that the “long-term monitoring” of the vehicle with a tracking device violated the 4th Amendment regardless of whether the device was attached to a car. He took the view that the government violated a motorist’s right to privacy by tracking his movements for weeks on end.

Under Alito’s approach, police would need a search warrant for any use of a tracking device, whether or not it was attached to the car. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan joined his opinion.

None of the justices agreed with the Justice Department’s view that the use of GPS device was a reasonable means of tracking a motorist on a public highway.


Supreme Court: Warrants needed in GPS tracking

By Robert Barnes, Updated: Monday, January 23, 10:32 AM

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that police must obtain a search warrant before using a GPS device to track criminal suspects. But the justices left for another day larger questions about how technology has altered a person’s expectation of privacy.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the government needed a valid warrant before attaching a GPS device to the Jeep used by D.C. drug kingpin Antoine Jones, who was convicted in part because police tracked his movements on public roads for 28 days.

“We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search’ ” under the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, Scalia wrote.

All justices agreed with the outcome of the case, which affirmed a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that said evidence of Jones’ s frequent trips to a stash house where drugs and nearly $1 million in cash were found must be thrown out.

The police had obtained a warrant for GPS surveillance of Jones, but it expired before they attached the device to his car.

But there was a significant split on the court about whether Monday’s decision went far enough.

Scalia’s majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor, said the electronic surveillance, if achieved without having to physically trespass on Jones’s property, may have been “an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.”

But Scalia added: “The present case does not require us to answer that question.”

It was that question — society’s expectation of privacy in a modern world — that had animated the court’s consideration of the case. In an intense hour-long oral argument last November, the Big Brother of George Orwell’s novel “1984” was referenced six times.

The justices pondered a world in which satellites can zero in on an individual’s house, cameras can record the faces at a crowded intersection and individuals can instantly announce their every movement to the world on Facebook. They wondered about the government placing tracking devices in overcoats or on license plates.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the decision also should have settled some of those questions instead of deciding a case about a “21st-century surveillance technique” by using “18th-century tort law.”

“The court’s reasoning largely disregards what is really important (the use of a GPS for the purpose of long-term tracking) and instead attaches great significance to something that most would view as relatively minor (attaching to the bottom of a car a small, light object that does not interfere in any way with the car’s operation),” Alito wrote.

Alito’s point was that it was the lengthy GPS surveillance of Jones itself that violated the Fourth Amendment and that “the use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy.”

“For such offenses,” he wrote, “society’s expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others would not — and indeed, in the main, simply could not — secretly monitor and catalogue every single movement of an individual’s car for a very long period.”

The key to the court’s more narrow decision on the case seemed to be Sotomayor. She praised Alito’s “incisively” written concurrence but indicated it might not have gone far enough.

“People reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the court of carrying out mundane tasks,” Sotomayor wrote. Perhaps people come to see a “diminution of privacy” as inevitable, Sotomayor said.

“I for one doubt that people would accept without complaint the warrantless disclosure to the government of a list of every Web site they had visited in the last week, or month, or year.”

But, she said, “resolution of these difficult questions” is unnecessary because she agreed with the majority that the government’s “physical intrusion on Jones’ Jeep” supplies a narrower avenue to decide the case.

The case is United States v. Jones.



My Legal Reference Web Site