GPS Tracking and Privacy Rights: Supreme Court to Decide

Does GPS Tracking Without a Warrant Takes Privacy Invasion to a Whole New Level?

gps tracking legalIn November 2011, the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in US v Jones, a case  The New York Times recently dubbed “the most important Fourth Amendment case in a decade.”

The Jones case will set the precedent for the legality and limitations of GPS tracking without a warrant. The Supreme Courts will address a question that has divided the lower courts for years: Do the police need a warrant to attach a GPS device to a suspect’s car and track its movements for weeks at a time?

The NY Times said, “the answer will bring Fourth Amendment law into the digital age, addressing how its 18th-century prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures” applies to a world in which people’s movements are continuously recorded by devices in their cars, pockets and purses, by toll plazas and by transit systems.

In the US v. Jones case, law enforcement agents installed a GPS tracking device on an automobile that was parked on private property.  They then used the GPS to track the position of the vehicle every ten seconds for a full month – without obtaining a search warrant.

A US Court of Appeals has already ruled that the surveillance was unconstitutional without a warrant, but the the Obama Administration has appealed the decision. The government has made it clear they believe GPS tracking devices may be affixed to suspects’ vehicles sans a warrant. They do not consider this to be an invasion of privacy or a violation of one’s 4th Amendment Rights.

GPS tracking, which allows police to follow as many people as they want for as long as they want without expending many resources, takes invasion of privacy to a new level. As Judge Douglas Ginsburg wrote in an appeals court decision in Jones’ favor, prolonged GPS surveillance “reveals an intimate picture of the subject’s life that he expects no one to have — short perhaps of his spouse.”

According to Wired Magazine, Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben told the Supreme Court in November oral arguments that federal authorities employ warrantless GPS monitoring “in the low thousands annually.” Dreeben also said the government could affix GPS tracking devices, without warrants, to the vehicles of the nine members of the Supreme Court.

Many of the justices were skeptical of the government’s position, saying the United States could evolve into a surveillance state if the Supreme Court sides with the government.

Justice Stephen Breyer told Dreeben, “If you win this case, there is nothing to prevent the police or government from monitoring 24 hours a day every citizen of the United States.”

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