Supreme Court Debates Police GPS Tracking

Supreme Court Debates Police GPS Tracking

Supreme Court justices expressed concerns about police using GPS devices without a valid warrant to track suspects’ movements, indicating serious reservations about technology’s contribution to civilian monitoring.

Justice Stephen Breyer said if the Obama administration wins the case to permit tracking of vehicles by Global Positioning Systems, or GPS, without a valid warrant, “Then there is nothing to prevent the police or the government from monitoring 24 hours a day the public movement of every citizen.”

Breyer compared that scenario to the Big Brother police state in the George Orwell novel “1984,” as he and other justices questioned attorneys from both sides in the case of Antoine Jones.

Police placed a GPS device inside Jones’ vehicle, a Washington D.C. nightclub owner suspected of being part of a cocaine operation. Law enforcement tracked Jones’ movements for a month, gathering evidence to convict him of conspiring to sell cocaine. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned the conviction, saying the sheer amount of information collected violated the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects personal privacy, and every citizen’s right to be free from unreasonable government intrusion into their persons, homes, businesses, and property, whether through police stops on the street, arrests, or searches of homes and businesses. Commonly referred to as the “search and seizure” amendment, it focuses on places and items in which an individual has a legitimate expectation of privacy, protecting unlawfully seized items from being used as evidence in criminal cases.

Michael R. Dreeben, a deputy U.S. solicitor general, said there are no constitutional limits to the government’s ability to track people’s movements in public, and Jones’ car was followed on public streets.

Dreeben went on to say even a device surreptitiously attached to clothing would be permissible, so long as it did not convey information from inside a home, adding the police could track the movements of the justices’ cars without a warrant.

To support his contention that law enforcement officials have used GPS tracking sparingly, Dreeben reported its use at the federal level is “in the low thousands annually.”

However, Jones’ lawyer, Stephen C. Leckar was succinct is stating his perspective, saying, “If you want to use GPS devices, get a warrant.”

The Supreme Court justices’ questioning and statements indicated a spectrum of opinion on the matter.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said a precedent-setting case may prompt local officials to adopt GPS monitoring, especially since it wouldn’t require great expense to do so, and greatly expand the practice.

Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Antonin Scalia, however, said such arbitrary limits on the technology should be imposed by legislatures rather than a court.

Discussion on limiting the use of GPS, rather than debating the constitutionality of using the device at all without a warrant, may indicate the court may focus more narrowly in their decision, leaving the broader issues for another day.

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