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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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Rimas, Watertown high school
they should need a warrant to track someone via GPS. but if law enforcement wanted to find someone they will use GPS tracking anyways. They would absolutely not follow that law, especially if it was the government trying to track you down. They aren't going to obey a law that they created and if they disobey it they will be able to get away with it.

Sidney Montana
Mr. Faulhaber
I think that the law enforcement need a warrant to track someone with a GPS device, because were you go is your privacy so the law enforement shouldnt be able to use it without a warrant.

Montgomery Tx
Luis D.
Mr. Metzger MHS
The law enforcement shouldn't be allowed to do so. If we give them this right to track us using GPS systems, we are giving away our privacy slowly. Putting tracking devices on our car does invade our privacy to begin with.

Montgomery Tx
Luis D.
Mr. Metzger MHS
The law enforcement shouldn't be allowed to do so. If we give them this right to track us using GPS systems, we are giving away our privacy slowly. Putting tracking devices on our car does invade our privacy to begin with.

The law enforcement should not need a warrant to track someone with a GPS device. If the police is searching for you as it is, then they have reasons to do so. The police will not track you simply to track you, they most likely have evidence.

No they don't because odds are if a person is being searched for its because they've broken the law in a serious way.

Sidney, MT
Mr. Faulhaber
They should have to have a warrent beacause that, to me, is a search. People shouldn't have to worry about getting in their car and having the government following they because they think they are doing illegal things. Your business is your business and if the government is suspecting you for a crime, you should know about it. For the government to know where you are going is considered a search because they have to track you.

I do agree with the Supreme Court's decision. I think that yes, if you are innocent you should have nothing to hide and should be willing to be searched temporarily BUT the search should only happen if the right steps have been taken like getting a search warrant. I think that the police most definitely invaded the Antoine's right of the Constitution being that they “searched” him without a warrant. The Constitution clearly states that “ The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” I think that if the police really believed that Antoine was involved in dealing drugs then they should have built a case around him with supporting evidence so they could get a search warrant to prove him guilty rather than violating the Constitution and therefore causing this court case.

Benson, AZ
sorensen/benson high
yes i think law enforcement should have a warrent to track someone on GPS becuase i consider it a search to. but i do think that if it revolves around a high priority case than they should not need a warrent but if it dosent then they should need a warrent.

Paul Frankmann/Harmon
This is really uncalled for the police should not be able to track you. They cannot go through your internet searches without a warrent. the officials need a warrent to be able to search your stuff.

Paul Frankmann/Harmon Middle School
This is totally uncalled for. Police do not have the right to go track you! they cannot look through your internet searches without a warrent. it is the same as anything else that you own. Officals need a warrent to go thruogh your things, so why should they be allowed to look at things that are looking at on the internet using your own devices. the key words are "your device." you oen the things that yo u are using to look at the internet.

Benson AZ
benson Mr. sorenson
i think that tracking a person would be he same as staking out a person or area. using the gps simply just saves time and useful resources i think the supreme courtwas wrong in this dicision

Irving, Tx
Bradley/Nimitz High School
Personally, I do not agree with the Supreme Court's decision, I believe that if you have nothing to hide, then it shouldn't be a problem to temporarily be searched. Technology has been changing and improving with time, and if GPS tracking is a new way of solving crimes, then so be it. It would be a complete new way to help solve crimes, and track down criminals trying to get away with breaking the law. I don't believe a warrant is needed for this specific kind of research because if the person knew they were being tracked they might even make sure they don't do anything illegal during the time they are being followed. So of course police would have no way to incriminate them, and the criminal would never be found.

Bradley/Nimitz High School
I do agree with the decision of the supreme court. What the police did in this case was very illegal and unconstitutional . Tracking someone with a GPS system with out the consent of a judge is the same thing as busting someones door down. Tracking someone should require a warrant.

Benson AZ
Mr. Sorensen
No they don't the devices are attached to most cell phones, any one with a cell phone can be tracked I think that it should be limited though, to protect the privacy of the people. Only convicts or suspects should be tracked, along with those with questionable histories.

mr.sorenson/benson unified school district
i agree with the supreme court becuse yeah they use it to catch criminals and all. still thats envasion of our privacy and what would stop them from useing it on anyone they thought was a criminal or becuse they might think your doing anything illigal. then what would the piont be other then to prove they dont care about are rights if they find no evidence of any kind.

Irving, Tx
Jocelyn E.
I agree with the Supreme Court. A GPS tracking device should be considered a search. It is a device in which you track/search for someone or something and that invades privacy, especially without an issued search warrant. I know that criminals are the ones they are using it for, but they still have rights. And also going into a phone conversation or emails is also taking away their privacy. So I believe that as well should require a search warrant.

Irving, Tx
Bradley, Nimitz High School
I think that a GPS should not be considered a search. If the police are utilizing a new technology in which they do not have to invade the personal space of a suspect then more power to them. I think that if someone doesn't have anything to hide then it should not be a big deal that they are being tracked for a short period of time in order to make sure that the person committed a crime. I think that a warrant would be an unnecessary addition to an investigation and would be unneeded in the case of GPS tracking.

Irving, Tx
Bradley/ Nimitz
I agree with the Supreme Court considering GPS tracking as a search. I believe that warrants should be issued because there are times when they might be chasing down the wrong person without reasonable evidence. I don't necessarily believe what all forms of digital data collection should require a search warrant. Call records and emails are public for all and should be available for access by law enforcement. Only things, like searching through one's car or home should require a warrant before the expected arrest or accusation. After all, how can a warrant be issued without sufficient evidence?

Irving, TX
Lilly H
Yes. I completely agree with the Supreme Court's ruling that GPS tracking is considered a search. Personally, I feel that finding out a person's whereabouts counts as a search mainly because this information would normally only be obtained by the consent of the person. Obviously this decision would typically also make law enforcement efforts less efficient because sometimes by the time an officer builds up enough evidence to obtain a search warrant it's too late. That that suspicious person was able to get away and commit more crimes just because officers weren't able to follow his movements at the time. It's a frustrating thought, but GPS tracking, regardless, is a search in my book. I also believe that most cases of digital data collection is a form of searching and should require a warrant. One disastrous example would be the News-International phone-hacking scandal that happened in Britain. Countless celebrities, politicians, and victims had their privacy egregiously and unfairly breached. In short, these sticky situations involving phone tapping definitely require search warrants, but when it comes to the internet, things are slightly different. Cookies track a user's web searches, however, their intentions are not negative or harmful, so this particular form of searching should not call for a warrant.

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United States v. Jones
The Supreme Court of the United States

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