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Supreme Court decides police need warrant for GPS trackers

Tue, 24 Jan 2012

The U.S. Department of Justice just got taken down a peg by the Supreme Court in a victory for privacy advocates. The high court ruled on Monday that a law-enforcement officer affixing a GPS tracker to a person's vehicle without a warrant is in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

In the case before the court, law-enforcement officials had affixed a GPS tracker to the Jeep of suspected drug dealer Antoine Jones. Tracking him for 28 days helped result in a bust that netted almost 100 kilos of cocaine and a million dollars in cash at a house in Fort Washington, Md., back in 2005. Other evidence-gathering techniques that had been used included a tap on his phone obtained with a warrant, and, in fact, a warrant issued in the District of Columbia had OK'd the use of a tracker on Jones's vehicle. But said warrant had expired by the time the device was installed in Maryland.

The court ruled unanimously that Jones's rights had been violated by the tracker but split 5-4 on the reasoning. The majority suggested that adding the GPS unit to the car was an invasion of property akin to a home search, while the minority also asserted that the act violated the suspect's “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

The Justice Department had argued that since nobody should expect privacy in public, probable cause was all that was required to justify the installation of a tracker.

What the ruling means is that officers can still affix GPS trackers to suspects' vehicles, but they now require a warrant to do so, rather than merely some undefined level of probable cause. In essence, they require enough proof for a judge to OK the tracking.

Note, however, that the ruling only has to do with tracking devices installed by law-enforcement officials. It does not cover the data being collected by say, your cell phone. Or, for that matter, your vehicle's own infotainment system. With the explosion of smartphones and the increasing digitization of the automobile's every function, expect that to be the next battleground.

We applaud the court for its decision, because the alternative leads down a slippery slope that ultimately leads to Orwell's picturesque tableau of “a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

See more of Phil Roeder's photos here.

By Davey G. Johnson