U.S. Supreme Court rules warrant needed for GPS tracking

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court passed down a unanimous ruling stating that police must obtain a search warrant in order to track a suspected criminal with GPS technology.  The court’s actions in this matter are extremely important because they could affect data privacy for much more than GPS systems, including cell phones and virtually any network device in the U.S.



On Monday, the United States Supreme Court passed down a unanimous ruling stating that police must obtain a search warrant in order to track a suspected criminal with GPS technology.  The court’s actions in this matter are extremely important because they could affect data privacy for much more than GPS systems, including cell phones and virtually any network device in the U.S.


The case of the United States v. Jones was brought to the highest court after police attached a GPS device to the undercarriage of Jeep owned by Antoine Jones, a nightclub owner and suspected drug trafficker.  The police did obtain a warrant for GPS tracking, valid for ten days, in the District of Colombia.  But, the police did not place the GPS tracker on the vehicle until the eleventh day, and the GPS tracker was placed on the car when it was located in a Maryland public parking lot, not the District of Columbia, where the warrant was issued.


In the trail court, GPS-derived locational data was accepted and presented, showing Jones’s Jeep at the stash house that contained $850,000 in cash, as well as 97 kilograms of cocaine.


In the trail case, Jones requested that information obtained by the GPS device be thrown out.  The District Court agreed to only throw out information obtained when the vehicle was parked at Jones’s residence.  The reasoning behind the decision was that Jones had a right to privacy in his residence but “a person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movement from one place to another.”


The trail ended on a hung jury, but in 2007 a grand jury convicted Jones and sentenced him to life in prison.  The United States of Appeals overturned the sentence, stating that the evidence obtained by the GPS device violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens “persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”  The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision on Monday.


In the majority opinion, Justice Scalia said, “It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case: 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.”


Still, Scalia did not explicitly state that a warrant was always necessary.


In a concurring opinion, Justice Sotomayor addressed the expectations of the new digital age, stating that it might be necessary to reconsider the idea that people have no reasonable expectation to privacy with information they voluntarily disclose to third parties.


“This approach is ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks.  People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers; the URLs that they visit and the email addresses with which they correspond to their Internet service providers…some people may find the ‘tradeoff’ of privacy for convenience ‘worthwhile’ or come to accept this ‘diminution of privacy’ as ‘inevitable…Resolution of these difficult questions in this case is unnecessary.”


Even though this case requires no answer to these questions, it is something that the court with undoubtedly have to face in the future, especially as technology advances.