GPS Tracking Without a Warrant – Should It Be Legal?
How would you feel if the police put a GPS tracking device on your vehicle without having a warrant? Without your knowledge, they would be able to track your movements 24 hours a day. If the police did this to you in order to gather evidence used to accuse you of a crime, would you feel that your constitutional rights had been violated?
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people facing criminal charges in California and across the United States from unreasonable searches and seizures. Logically, you could assume that placing a GPS tracking device on a person’s car without a warrant would be precisely that type of unreasonable search. However, law enforcement authorities would like to be able to do just that. The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to take on a case that will address this precise issue.
In 2005, Antoine Jones drove around with a GPS tracking device inconspicuously attached to his Jeep. He had no idea the GPS tracking device was attached to his vehicle. The device recorded the vehicle’s every movement, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for about 4 weeks total. Law enforcement agents placed the tracking device on his vehicle without first obtaining a court ordered warrant.
The GPS device tracked Mr. Jones to his Northeast Washington nightclub and to a residence in Prince George’s County known to law enforcement officers as a stash house. The GPS tracking device, calibrated to capture the vehicle’s position every 10 seconds. It produced 3,000 pages of records that prosecutors used to convict Mr. Jones on drug charges.
However, the conviction was overturned last year when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the government breached the Constitution — and Mr. Jones’s reasonable expectations of privacy — because law enforcement officers placed the device on the SUV and tracked his every movement without a valid court order.
“A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts,” D.C. Circuit Judge Douglas Ginsburg aptly noted in invalidating Mr. Jones’s conviction.
The Supreme Court recently agreed to review the Jones case and decide whether and when use of a GPS tracking device installed on a car is a Fourth Amendment search. The Court is supposed to decide whether the government violated respondent’s Fourth Amendment rights by installing the GPS tracking device on his vehicle without a valid warrant and without his consent.
The Justice Department argued in a recent brief that warrants aren’t needed for such GPS tracking. After all, officers have been tailing suspects pretty much for as long as detectives have roamed the Earth, and in this country police have never needed court permission to do so.
GPS tracking is a valuable tool, and the vast majority of law enforcement officers would probably use it appropriately. But there should be a check against what Judge Alex Kozinski of the California federal appeals court called the possibility of “creepy and un-American” government acts. Is requiring a court order before launching a lengthy and intrusive tracking project too much to ask?