Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

‘The Moral High Ground’: In ‘United States v. Jones’ Ruling, U.S. Supreme Court Rules Warrant Needed for Law Enforcement GPS Tracking

In a major victory for privacy in the information age, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that law enforcement officials must obtain warrants before placing a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle.

USA Today reports that the 9-0 ruling in United States v. Jones was the high court’s first foray into GPS tracking. While the ruling was unanimous, the justices were divided on how Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure apply to GPS tracking.

Specifically, the ruling applied whenever law enforcement authorities want to attach a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s vehicle. The case involved Washington, D.C. nightclub owner Antoine Jones, who was suspected of cocaine trafficking. Police fitted a GPS tracker to his Jeep and then used evidence gleaned from the device to help convict him of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

Jones’ conviction has now been reversed due to the Supreme Court ruling.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the main opinion in the case, declaring that “the government’s physical intrusion on the Jeep” amounted to a search. Scalia was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts as well as Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor. The other four justices, led by Samuel Alito, agreed only with the judgment in favor of Jones. Alito wrote that the act of attaching a GPS tracking device to a vehicle does not in and of itself constitute an illegal search. It is the driver’s expectation of privacy, he argued, that counts.

“We need not identify with precision the point at which the tracking of this vehicle became a search, for the line was surely crossed before the 4-week mark,” he wrote. Alito was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

The decision was hailed as a victory by civil libertarians and privacy advocates.

” [The] Fourth Amendment must continue to protect against government intrusions even in the face of modern technological surveillance tools,” Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project, told USA Today. 

“The bottom line is that any use of a GPS tracking device without a warrant would be highly risky for law enforcement,” said Walter Dellinger, one of Jones’ attorneys.

The U.S. Justice Department unsuccessfully argued that drivers do not expect their public movements to remain private; therefore  GPS tracking is not barred by the Fourth Amendment.

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