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Unanimous Decision by Supreme Court Rules Warrant Needed for GPS Tracking

In a decision Monday, the US Supreme Court ruled that a warrant was needed before attaching a GPS device to a person’s car. Specifically, this decision reversed the cocaine-trafficking conviction of a Washington D.C. club owner, Antoine Jones. In 2005, law enforcement secretly attached a GPS tracker to a car owned by Jones that was parked in a public parking lot. The tracker was used to monitor the vehicle’s movement for four weeks, which helped law enforcement track Jones to a suburban house used to stash money and drugs.

Although this ruling only directly applies to tracking devices that police install on a person’s property such as a car, the justices were split on how the Fourth Amendment, protecting against unreasonable search and seizure, applies to high-tech tracking even though the decision was unanimous. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the main opinion for the court, stating, “The government’s physical intrusion on the Jeep for the purpose of obtaining information constitutes a search.” Justice Scalia based this decision on the Fourth Amendment writing, “Where, as here, the government obtains information by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area, such a search has undoubtedly occurred.” This opinion was shared by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, and Chief Justice John Roberts.

In a concurring position, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the case would be better served if it concerned the expectations of privacy: “The use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy.” He further went on to write: “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 4-week mark.” Justice Alito’s opinions were shared with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

Five of the justices additionally suggested in concurring statements that a warrant might also be required for tracking done through cell phones or other devices already equipped with GPS capabilities.

The original article be read here.

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