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In a unanimous decision viewed as a victory for individual privacy and Fourth Amendment protection, the United States Supreme Court on Monday said cops cannot track suspects’ vehicles with global positions system (GPS) devices without a proper search warrant.
The two-ounce GPS device, about the size of a credit card, is a 21st-century surveillance technique used by cops during investigations after court authorization. In this case, the agents obtained a warrant but failed to comply with the warrant’s restrictions.
“It is important to be clear what occurred in this case,” said Justice Antonin Scalia in the opinion of the Court. “The Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information.”
“We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.”
Scalia went on to explain that the language of the Fourth Amendment reflects a close connection to individual property.
“(O)therwise it would have referred simply to ‘the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures’; the phrase ‘in their persons, house, papers, and effects’ would have been superfluous.”
Two additional concurring opinions were written by Justices Sotomayor and Alito.
The case, United States v. Jones, centered on Antoine Jones – the owner and operator of a nightclub in the District of Columbia – who in 2004 was suspected of trafficking in narcotics by a joint FBI and Metropolitan Police Department task force.
During the course of the investigation, officers used numerous techniques to collect evidence, including “visual surveillance of the nightclub, installation of a camera focused on the front door of the club, and a pen register and wiretap covering Jones’s cellular phone.”
In 2005, the government sought and obtained a warrant authorizing a GPS device to be placed on a Jeep Grand Cherokee registered to Jones’s wife. However, the warrant only authorized the tracking device to be installed in the District of Columbia within 10 days of the date of the warrant being issued.
Despite these conditions, law enforcement agents installed the GPS tracking device in Maryland on the 11th day while the vehicle was parked in a public parking lot.
“Over the next 28 days, the Government used the device to track the vehicle’s movements, and once had to replace the device’s battery when the vehicle was parked in a different public lot in Maryland,” court documents revealed. “By means of signals from multiple satellites, the device established the vehicle’s location within 50 to 100 feet, and communicated that location by cellular phone to a Government computer.”
The more than 2,000 pages of data collected over a four-week period were ultimately used to obtain a multiple-count indictment against Jones and several alleged co-conspirators. Charges included “conspiracy to distribute and possess” five kilograms or more of cocaine and 50 grams or more of cocaine base, according to court records.
The October 2006 trial ended in a hung jury, and the case was re-tried five months later on a single conspiracy charge. This time the jury returned a guilty verdict and Jones was sentenced to life in prison.
On appeal, the District of Columbia Circuit court reversed Jones’ conviction as a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a decision which the Supreme Court supported on Monday.
“The Government usurped Jones’ property for the purpose of conducting surveillance on him, thereby invading privacy interests long afforded, and undoubtedly entitled to, Fourth Amendment protection,” Sotomayor wrote.
The Justice also went on to say that such “unrestrained power” by the government is ripe for abuse.
In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Alito said the emergence of new devices — closed-circuit television, automatic toll roads, vehicle roadside assistance, cell phones & wireless devices — that allow the monitoring of a person’s movements will continue to shape the average citizen’s expectation of privacy.
“In circumstances involving dramatic technological change, the best solution to privacy concerns may be legislative.”
Alito said privacy issues brought before the Court can only be looked at in light of the Fourth Amendment, as neither Congress nor individual states have passed laws regulating GPS technology.
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