Supreme Court Rules On Law Enforcement Use Of GPS Tracking Devices

25 Jan 2012

On Monday, January 23, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement authorities are disallowed from placing a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s automobile in order to track movement without first having a warrant.

This first of its kind ruling will likely shape the privacy rights that Americans will expect to see in the future in an era of new generation wireless electronics. It’s the first time the issue of use of GPS devices in criminal investigations was addressed in a ruling. Down the road, we may see more developments in the tracking of mobile phones and other technology devices.

The decision on the police’s use of GPS tracking devices on a person’s car without a warrant highlights the technology that police had in monitoring Americans’ day-to-day habits and activities. Typically without a warrant and under the cover of darkness, up until now, police had been able to install a GPS device under a suspect’s car to aid their investigations.

Based on the premise that the a vehicle’s movements was protected under the U.S. Constitution, which covers protections against unreasonable seizures and searches of evidence, the Supreme Court ruled that a GPS tracking devices cannot be used for tracking suspects without a warrant. This major ruling on privacy in the digital age was made as an unanimous Supreme Court decision.

Originally created for military operations, a global positioning system (GPS) relies on satellites to transmit to receivers. These receivers calculate longitude and latitude to derive a location. The navigation satellite-based system is made up of a large network of 24 satellites place in space by the U.S. Department of Defense. The United States government allowed GPS devices to be used by civilians in 1980. GPS devices work all day and all night, and in any kind of weather.

The case that is to set precedence is United States v. Jones, 10-1259. In the case, a GPS device assisted law enforcement authorities to link Antoine Jones, a nightclub owner, to a house in the suburbs. It was there the suspect stashed drugs and cash. Jones was originally sentenced to life in prison.

To solve the case, police installed a GPS device on Jones’ vehicle to track his movements over a period of a month. During a federal court appeal, Jones’ drug conspiracy conviction was overturned. The Supreme Court agreed with this overturned conviction.

That’s not to say law enforcement won’t continue to use GPS devices, but any use of a GPS electronic surveillance device to monitor an American citizen’s movement will need a search warrant.

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