On Tuesday, November 8, the Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments in a case The New York Times recently dubbed “the most important Fourth Amendment case in a decade.” The court’s ruling will have a far-reaching impact on society, and on law enforcement and warrantless GPS tracking practices.
The case, United States v. Jones, revolves around a few fundamental questions. Must police first obtain a warrant before placing a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car? Can police track someone’s movements for weeks or months at a time without any legal limitations or restrictions?
According to the ABA Law Journal, since 1967 the Supreme Court has defined the protections of the Fourth Amendment in terms of the “reasonable expectation of privacy.” But how does that apply in this situation?
Prior to using GPS tracking devices, police simply did not have the manpower to follow someone 24/7. But technology has become so advanced in recent years, police are gaining more ability to follow anyone at any time. A great deal of personal information can be learned by following someone for weeks.
One one side, critics contend that monitoring a person with a GPS tracking device without a warrant is a violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. “If the Supreme Court were to rule against warrants for GPS tracking, the state of Pennsylvania could, for example, decide tomorrow that all license plates would be issued with a GPS monitor,” warned Norman Sadeh, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, in a statement of the university’s home page, according to an article in Computer World.
Paul Smith, a partner at Jenner & Block, told the International Business Times, “giving law enforcement the authority to compile such records using GPS technology without a warrant could be used to track the whereabouts of political figures, for instance.”
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.
Keep in mind, what police can do to one person, they can do to 1,000, which starts to sound a lot like Orwell’s “Big Brother.”