Supreme Court Rules GPS Tracking Requires a Warrant

GPS device located under car. (Photo: Jon Snyder/Wired)

WASHINGTON (The Blaze/AP) — In a unanimous and precedent-setting ruling, the Supreme Court said Monday that police must get a search warrant before using GPS technology to track criminal suspects.

The GPS device helped authorities link Washington, D.C., nightclub owner Antoine Jones to a suburban house used to stash money and drugs. He was sentenced to life in prison before the appeals court overturned the conviction.

(Related: Check out this article about the case with a Blaze interview from a privacy expert.)

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.

All nine justices agreed that the placement of the GPS on the Jeep violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Greg Nojeim, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s project on freedom, security and technology, said in an interview with The Blaze that the Supreme Court’s decision was “landmark”.

“It signals their willingness to protect privacy in the face of advancing technology,” Nojeim said.

Scalia wrote the main opinion of three in the case. He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor.

Wired has more from Scalia:

“We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,’” Scalia wrote.

In  a footnote, Scalia added that, “Whatever new methods of investigation may be devised, our task, at a minimum, is to decide whether the action in question would have constituted a ‘search’ within the original meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Where, as here, the government obtains information by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area, such a search has undoubtedly occurred.”

Sotomayor also wrote one of the two concurring opinions that agreed with the outcome in the Jones case for different reasons.

Justice Samuel Alito also wrote a concurring opinion in which he said the court should have gone further and dealt with GPS tracking of wireless devices, like mobile phones. He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

Here MSNBC describes difference in analysis by the justices that still ultimately lead them all to the same decision:

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Nojeim also said that majority opinion of the Supreme Court placed an emphasis on that it was the pervasiveness of the tracking that stimulated the need for a warrant — not only the trespassing. Using this sentiment, he thinks that this could open the door for the potential of requiring a warrant on tracking cellphones as well, although this was not discussed by the high court.

A federal appeals court in Washington had overturned Jones’s drug conspiracy conviction because police did not have a warrant when they installed a GPS device on his vehicle and then tracked his movements for a month. The Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court. The case is U.S. v. Jones, 10-1259.

It is unclear if the precedent set today could affect other cases — like that of a California man who had two devices stuck under his vehicle — where police have used GPS tracking without a warrant. Nojeim said that in existing cases law enforcement will argue that it acted in good faith that a warrant wasn’t required.

Wired points out that the justices said “the present case does not require us to answer” if police use of GPS systems already installed by the owner would constitute trespassing and require a warrant. But, Nojeim points out, the Supreme Court decision does open the door for Congress to consider creating more specific legislation based on it.

“It laid down markers for Congress to consider,” Nojeim said.

Update: This story was updated to include information from Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology.