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Supreme Court Rules Warrant Needed For GPS Tracking

Braden Holly |
January 23, 2012 | 11:18 a.m. PST

Executive Producer

GPS. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.
GPS. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.
In a case that sounds like something from a spy flick, or perhaps a Batman movie, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that police must obtain a warrant before using new technology like GPS to track suspect’s movements.

Police used evidence gathered by attaching a GPS device to the Jeep of Antoine Jones, who was convicted based upon the information police gathered using this method, though the conviction was later overturned.

The case highlights the ongoing debate regarding the use of technology and how to interpret people’s rights in the new high-tech landscape.

According to CBS News:

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.

Though police were led to a house in which they found drugs and about $1 million in cash, the long-term surveillance of Jones was deemed to be a violation of his rights and the case was thrown out, according to the Washington Post.

It truly does bring to mind the quintessential cop drama.  If it were Hollywood I would expect the officers who amassed the evidence against Jones to turn in their guns and badges over the ruling and bring some vigilante justice to bear.

However, this is the real world, and the courts and law enforcement are struggling to deal with new technologies and what those mean for the privacy of private citizens, and that caused the overturning of a case that looked like a slam-dunk conviction.

According to the Washington Post:

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

Apparently a big part of the reasoning behind overturning the conviction was that police attached the GPS to the Jeep themselves.  Had they tracked him using a technology that they had not installed themselves, the outcome may have been different.

USA Today Reported:

[Justice Samuel] Alito contended the attachment of the GPS device was not itself an illegal "search." Rather, he argued, what matters is a driver's expectation of privacy.

"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," Alito wrote, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

It is undeniable that people’s privacy and rights need to be protected.  However, there should also be a reasonable expectation that justice is being done as well.

Many might hope that oversights like this won’t happen in the future as laws regarding high-tech surveillance and law enforcement become more well defined.



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