Does law enforcement need a warrant to track someone with a GPS device?
Feb. 6, 2012
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
If police use a GPS device to track someone, is that considered a search? That is the question the Supreme Court answered in late January, when it reviewed United States v. Jones.
The court heard the case of Antoine Jones, a suspected drug dealer in Washington, D.C., who was arrested after police tracked him for 28 days, linking him to a house where drugs were kept. Law enforcement had attached a GPS tracking device to his Jeep and monitored his movements without a warrant. Jones was sentenced to life in prison before an appeals court overturned his conviction.
A search warrant is a court order by a judge that authorizes police to search a person or a person’s house or car for evidence of a crime. Judges do not simply grant search warrants in every case. Police must show that there is enough evidence to consider a person a likely suspect for committing a specific crime.
Police must get a search warrant from a judge because the Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable search and seizures by the government. Search warrants force the police to build a case first, collecting enough evidence to present probable cause to a judge.
But does tracking someone with a GPS device count as a search?
The Supreme Court thinks so. It ruled unanimously that GPS tracking could be considered a search, therefore police need to obtain a warrant first.
“The Supreme Court’s decision is an important one because it sends a message that technological advances cannot outpace the American Constitution,” said Donald Tibbs, a law professor at Drexel University. “The people will retain certain rights even when technology changes how the police are able to conduct their investigations.”
The court opinion stated, “The Fourth Amendment protects the ‘right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’ Here, the Government’s physical intrusion on an “effect” for the purpose of obtaining information constitutes a ‘search.’”
In the opinion, the court concluded many types of high-tech surveillance, such as email tracking and collecting data on whom people call – a hallmark of law enforcement investigations in post-9/11 – could be up for judicial review in the future as potential constitutional and privacy issues arise.
What do you think?
Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s decision? How will this affect police and law enforcement efforts? Do you think that other forms of digital data collection, like finding out whom suspects are calling, is a form of searching that should require a warrant? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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