Supreme Court: Warrant Needed for GPS Tracking

gps tracking legalGPS tracking, law enforcement and 4th Amendment privacy rights

In a major decision on privacy in the digital age, in a case the NY Times dubbed “the most important Fourth Amendment case in a decade,” the Supreme Court ruled Monday that police cannot put a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car to track his movements without a warrant.

This is the first time the Supreme Court confronted the government’s growing use of digital tracking technology to monitor Americans and ruled strongly in favor of privacy, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The ruling, which marked the justices’ first-ever review of GPS tracking, was unanimous. The justices divided, however, on how the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to such high-tech GPS tracking.

The high court’s ruling was a defeat for the Obama administration and the US Justice Department, who defended the use of GPS tracking devices without a warrant and without a person’s knowledge as a legal way to monitor a vehicle on public streets.

The case began in 2005 when police officers went to a public parking lot in Maryland and secretly installed a GPS tracking device on a Jeep Grand Cherokee used by a Washington, D.C. nightclub owner, Antoine Jones, reported Reuters.

Jones was suspected of drug trafficking and the police tracked his movements for a month. The resulting evidence played a key role in his conviction for conspiring to distribute cocaine.

On Monday, the Supreme Court reversed the life sentence of Jones, saying the government violated Jones’ privacy rights in clandestinely tracking his movement for a month.

All nine justices agreed in upholding the appeals court decision, but at least four justices would have gone even further in finding fault not only with the attachment of the device, but also with the lengthy monitoring.

Monday’s decision specifically applies when police install GPS on a person’s car. But five justices suggested in concurring statements that a warrant might similarly be needed for prolonged surveillance through smartphones or other devices equipped with GPS.

Justice Antonin Scalia said the government’s installation of the device, and its use of the GPS to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constituted a search, meaning a warrant was required. “Officers encroached on a protected area,” Scalia wrote.

Relying on a centuries-old legal principle, he concluded that the police action without a warrant was a trespass and therefore an illegal search. He was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor.

For more information on the details of the Jones case, please go to




Categories: GPS Tracking News, Vehicle Tracking Systems