The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously decided that it is not constitutional for law enforcement agencies to install a GPS tracking device on a citizen’s vehicle unless a judge has issued a warrant.
In a unanimous decision, the high court said Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable searches prohibit police or federal agents from affixing a Global-Positioning-System (GPS) tracking device to a private vehicle and then recording the vehicle’s every movement 24 hours a day for weeks or months without prior court approval.
The decision is a setback for the Obama Justice Department, which had argued that the Constitution did not hinder its use of tracking technology to monitor vehicles traveling on public streets.
The opinion in US v. Jones (10-1259) is important because it upholds a broad right to be free from unreasonable searches. But it also highlights an emerging struggle within the high court to establish a consistent method of analysis that properly balances law enforcement objectives with privacy concerns.
My old associate John Whitehead announced:
“We have entered a new and frightening age when advancing technology is erasing the Fourth Amendment,” said John Whitehead, president of the Virginia-based non-profit Rutherford Institute, in a statement.
“Thankfully,” he said, “the US Supreme Court has sent a resounding message to government officials – especially law enforcement officials – that there are limits to their powers.”
This ruling will stop the practice.
If you believe this, you are more naive than I thought.
The ruling will make it more difficult for the police to build a case based on the information obtained by the GPS units. The units will still be installed without warrants, but in fewer cases. They will provide information that will let the authorities conceal where they got it. “We just happened to stumble into this information. We got lucky.”
In World War II, the British had cracked the code of the German military. They did not want the German planners to figure this out. So, they would send reconnaissance planes to where they knew German ships would be. Then the planes would radio the positions. The Brits were creating a cover story: lucky pilots who happened to spot the ships. It worked. The Germans never figured out that the code had been cracked.
But it’s better than nothing. It may slow them down a little.