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Supreme Court decision protects Fourth Amendment rights

January 23, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
Guess what? The cops can't just stick a GPS tracker on your car without a warrant.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday against the U.S. government, which had argued that it was OK for cops to use GPS monitoring on a suspect's vehicle for a month to build a case against him.

According to the Associated Press article, the Washington D.C. police installed a GPS device on nightclub owner Antoine Jones' Jeep to help them link him to a suburban house used to stash money and drugs. Jones was sentenced to life in prison before the appeals court overturned his conviction.

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. He concluded that the installation of the device on the vehicle without a warrant was a trespass and therefore an illegal search.

Scalia seemed to conclude that the length of time that the GPS device was attached to the truck was an issue. It might have been permitted if it were for a shorter time. Of course, cops can probably track us in other ways, given that most of us now carry cell phones that are also equipped with GPS tracking. At some point most cars themselves might come equipped with built-in GPS technology.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a concurring opinion that the court will eventually also have to address the expectations of privacy given the use of this new technology. The other judges concurred. "It may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to their parties," wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

This decision represents something of a blow to government and police agencies, which have increasingly relied on high tech surveillance of suspects, including the use of various types of GPS technology. However, I think it is also a very necessary check to government power. It is time for the Supreme Court to draw a very visible bright line around the right to privacy in the Internet age. Hopefully they will do so in the near future.

The Supreme Court case is U.S. vs. Jones, 10-1259.


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