Supreme Court: Police must obtain a warrant before attaching a GPS tracker to a suspect’s vehicle

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police must obtain a warrant before attaching a GPS tracker to a suspect’s vehicle.  However, the Court was split 5-4 in its reasoning behind the ruling, with Justice Antonin Scalia writing for the majority.  Justice Scalia reasoned that the Fourth Amendment’s protection of “persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” would extend to private property, including one’s vehicle.  In contrast, the minority decision emphasized a more sweeping declaration that installing the GPS tracker not only trespassed on private property, but violated the suspect’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.” 

The case involves a narcotics operation allegedly run by the defendant, Antoine Jones.  During the course of the investigation, DC police and FBI agents tracked Mr. Jones, a nightclub owner, through several means of surveillance techniques, which included tapping his cellphone under a warrant from a federal judge.  Authorities also placed a GPS tracking device on his Jeep Grand Cherokee without a valid warrant, which the government argued was not constitutionally required.  The Justice Department argued that the FBI uses GPS tracking devices in thousands of investigations each year, and attaching a tiny tracking device to a car’s undercarriage was too trivial a violation of property rights to matter.  However, the majority shot this argument down, reasoning that even a small trespass, if committed in “an attempt to find something or to obtain information,” constituted a “search” under the Fourth Amendment.

This is a landmark case as far as constitutional rights in the digital age are concerned.   Justice Sotomayor joined in the majority opinion, but wrote separately to set out various privacy issues that emerging technology was presenting.  For example, smartphones have the ability to disclose a user’s location unless the internal GPS functions are actually turned off.  Unfortunately, the Court’s ruling provided no definitive answers as to whether the government must obtain a warrant for access to such private property.

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