Police Need Warrant for GPS Tracking, Supreme Court Rules

The US Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that police must obtain a search warrant before using a GPS device to track criminal suspects. But the decision was narrow, leaving unanswered lingering questions about citizens' expectations of privacy in an age of rapid technological advance.

The ruling came in US v. Jones, in which Washington, DC, nightclub owner Antoine Jones was convicted of drug trafficking offenses based in part on evidence developed after police placed a GPS device on his vehicle and monitored his movements for 28 days. (See the Chronicle's earlier coverage of the Antoine Jones case here.) Police had sought a warrant to place a GPS tracking device, but that warrant expired before the device was actually placed on Jones' vehicle.

Writing the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said police needed a search warrant before attaching a GPS device to a suspect's vehicle. He was joined in the opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor.

"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.

But the court split on whether the decision went far enough. Scalia wrote that if the government had been able to use electronic surveillance to spy on Jones without physically trespassing on his property, that may have been "an unconstitutional invasion of privacy." But, Scalia added, "The present case does not require us to answer that question."

That wasn't good enough for Justice Samuel Alito Jr., who, in a concurring opinion, said the court should have tackled the larger question instead of using "18th century tort law" to decide a case about "21st century surveillance techniques."

"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.

It was the long-term surveillance itself, not the fact that police physically placed a tracking device on Jones' vehicle, that violated the Fourth Amendment's proscription against warrantless searches and seizures, Alito argued.

"The use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy," he wrote. "For such offenses, society's expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others would not -- and indeed, in the main, simply could not -- secretly monitor and catalog every single movement of an individual's car for a very long period."

Although Justice Sotomayor joined the majority opinion, she also seemed disappointed that the court had not ruled more broadly. She wrote that the court had in effect ducked the big question of whether warrantless electronic surveillance was constitutional and warned that Monday's decision will do little to answer that question.

"With increasing regularity, the government will be capable of duplicating the monitoring undertaken in this case by enlisting factory- or owner-installed vehicle tracking devices or GPS-enabled smart phones," Sotomayor wrote. "In cases of electronic or other novel modes of surveillance that do not depend upon a physical invasion on property, the majority opinion's trespassory test may provide little guidance."

Still, this is a win for the Fourth Amendment and for individual privacy rights, even if it is limited.

Washington, DC
United States
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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GPS Tracking

'Justice Samuel Alito Jr., who, in a concurring opinion, said the court should have tackled the larger question instead of using "18th century tort law" to decide a case about "21st century surveillance techniques."'

Justice Alito is mistaken about what he said. This was not about about "21st century surveillance techniques" versus "18th century tort law". 

US v. Jones was about legal and illegal ways of searching as our Constitution guarantees that those serving in the three branches of our federal government can and (most importantly) cannot do; not about techniques past, present, or future. Tort law does apply, and always will, if needed to strengthen or show the Constitutionality of a judicial decision. This was about was the search(es) meeting the Constitution's guarantee (of how those within our government can do them without taking a persons natural Rights away). The US Constitution guarantees that those serving within our government are allowed to do them only if they can be done without treading on, or doing away with, our natural Rights.

Remember our Constitution, our Rights guaranteed within can be strengthened but not weakened or done away with. Justice Alito, along with the rest of the Judicial branch are held to not only what is Constitutional regarding legal decisions, but also that they are required to "support and defend the US Constitution" itself before anything else including the "duties of the office" he/they is/are currently occupying.

Justice Alito is seemingly not knowledgeable enough about, or is disdainful of our US Constitution. Nor does it seem that he paid attention to the two Oaths he was required to take to get to the position he now occupies.

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”

Title 28, Chapter I, Part 453 of the United States Code: "I, [NAME], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as [TITLE] under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God."

He might need to remember that not keeping those Oaths is a prosecutable offense. So is being a domestic enemy of the USA. ("Domestic enemies pursue legislation, programs against the powers of the US Constitution. They work on destroying and weakening the Rights of the People guaranteed by the Constitution. Plus they create laws, amendments, etc that goes against the restraint on the three branches of our government by the Constitution. They are also those who support those in action, or by inaction; vote, voice, money, etc who are going against or trying to weaken the US Constitution and the Peoples written guarantee of those Rights")

He may have also forgotten or never known that Constitutional framers believed that our Rights (along with others not put into writing) are our natural Rights. That our US Constitution was created to define the way our government will operate, and to Protect our Rights from those who serve in our government who would take them away. The Constitution only grants our government certain, specified powers. That in fact the Bill of Rights sets limits on the federal government, making clear it has no power to infringe on rights we already naturally possess, or to limit traditionally held privileges, such as trial by jury.

The first eight amendments making up the Bill of Rights specify rights and privileges our federal government may not in any way abridge. It puts into writing the protections of life liberty and property, rights we each naturally possess; plus the specific privileges in the judicial system already accepted in Anglo-American law.

The Ninth Amendment makes the limiting nature of the US Constitution clear; "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

The framers wanted to make sure everyone understood that the Constitution only grants our federal government prescribed, specific, enumerated powers; our federal government may not exercise any powers not granted by the US Constitution. Repeat, that our federal government cannot exercise ANY powers other than those constitutionally granted.

The Tenth Amendment makes clear that all other powers belong to the states and to the People: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people"

American citizens are sick of the corruption of the people serving within our government, and we are willing to start replacing domestic enemies and Oath breakers now. We do realize that there are domestic enemies and Oath breakers within the judicial branch that will need to be replaced before we can prosecute them. Within the three branches of our federal government are many, if not most, who have not kept the Oath to "support and defend" the US Constitution from domestic enemies. If they had kept any part of that Oath there would be no Patriot Act or the extending of the same with additional non constitutional features, no warrantless searches, no NDAA, no SOPA, no Pipa, no (Obamacare) healthcare Bill, Obama would have been made to step down when he was chair for the UN, Obama and holder would be on trial for being traitors and also for being murderers under our penal code (Fast adn Furious - Obama fought for funding of it in 2009, got the funding on his 2nd try), there would be no bill pending that American citizens cannot grow food in gardens, the existing ones concerning American citizens cannot use rain water (not over use, use it), etc.

Thankfully many military, law enforcement, state governors, some (very few - so lots of prosecutions coming up and job openings also) legislative branch, and (again very few) of the judicial branch are against this destruction of the USA, the US Constitution, and the American way of life; so the American citizens will not be alone is stopping the domestic enemies and Oath breakers, nor getting replacements for the offices and positions they are currently and illegally occupying. (They are required to keep the Oath until they leave the office or position, and if do not they no longer meet the requirements to be in that office or position). It is time for arrests to start, our Constitution and the Oath's taken to be upheld; positions to be refilled, prosecutions to start.

Personally, I think this was

Personally, I think this was the right decision, even if it was incredibly narrow in scope.

I appreciate this type of

I appreciate this type of decision! I just pleased to read about this type of writing. Love this entry. Thanks for this allocation. :lol:

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Interesting, my opinion is

I think I've watched enough documentaries and movies to know that the police require a court order in order to track civilians, I'm happy that is the case, because the idea of the police being able to violate my privacy on a whim is disturbing, and I think that's how most people feel about it. However, I've always wondered how accurate much of this tracking technology is, I think I should do my research on it.

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