GPS, No Longer Working For the Government

This blog posted a few months back about a case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, a case about police use of GPS devices to monitor a suspected drug dealer. The Supreme Court handed down its decision yesterday, and unanimously agreed that in order to track a vehicle using a GPS device there must be a valid warrant.

While the decision was unanimous, the opinions were not. There were three opinions entered on the record, ranging from narrow to broad views on GPS tracking and other devices. The narrow opinion, written by Justice Scalia and voted on by 5 Justices, stated that this decision is based on the facts as presented in the case. In this case, law enforcement received a valid warrant giving them 10 days to install the GPS device, and a limitation that the device must be installed in the District of Columbia. Law enforcement officials did not install the device until the 11th day, and it was done in Maryland. Scalia’s opinion focused on the lack of validity of the warrant for how the device was used. Without a valid warrant, Scalia states, law enforcement officers trespassed onto the defendant’s property.

Justice Alito’s concurring opinion, supported by 4 votes, also raised issues for future consideration. Alito questioned how GPS and other devices could be used when already installed in a suspect’s car, and there is no physical trespass performed. For instance, many cars come equipped with an OnStar™ system, which allows emergency personnel to track a vehicle in case of accident or other emergency.

The broadest opinion, a concurring opinion written by Justice Sotomayor and voted on only by herself, raised questions of police interference with private citizens beyond simply concerns about devices on vehicles. Sotomayor voiced concern about the proliferation of technical devices in the life of the average person, and how technology could be used by law enforcement to track not only a vehicle but a person’s diet and sexual preferences.

What the Court did not address was how far their decision should go to restrain law enforcement. Law enforcement, as represented by the government in this case, argued that even without the warrant, using the GPS did not violate the defendant’s 4th Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure because they had probably cause and reasonable suspicion, making the search lawful. Lower courts did not address whether GPS monitoring could count as a lawful search, so the Supreme Court did not consider the issue. Likewise, the issue of how long monitoring, with a valid warrant to install the device, could continue.

For now, citizens can be satisfied knowing that police can not slide by on an expired warrant, no matter how much probable cause they have for a search. Once a monitoring device can be installed on a suspect’s vehicle, though, there is no precedent for how long it can be there or how else it can be used.

Law enforcement can not put a GPS on your vehicle without a valid warrant. Whether they can use your existing GPS to monitor your movement has yet to be decided.

 

For more detailed analysis of this decision by the Supreme Court, read their blog here.

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