Breaking Down the Supreme Court’s GPS Tracking Decision

gps tracking legalThe Supreme Court ruled last week that the police violated the Constitution when they hid a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking device on a man’s car and monitored his movements for 28 days.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling was an important one for all U.S. citizens, yet the court left many questions unanswered.

The NY Times once dubbed the case, U.S. v. Jones, “the most important Fourth Amendment case in a decade.”  It is the first time the Supreme Court confronted the government’s growing use of digital technology to monitor Americans and ruled strongly in favor of privacy.

The case involved the conviction of Antoine Jones, a suspected drug dealer in the District of Columbia who was arrested after being monitored for 28 days by a GPS tracking device surreptitiously attached to his Jeep by law enforcement agents without a warrant.

Based on the court’s decision, law enforcement must first obtain a warrant before attaching a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s car and monitoring him.

The court was divided, however, as to what level of GPS tracking would require a search warrant. Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking for a five-member majority, said the police erred because they attached the tiny tracking device to the vehicle. He said the 4th Amendment was intended to protect against government searches on private property, reported the LA Times.

“We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS tracking device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,'” Scalia said. “The government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information,” he said.

Such a search is unconstitutional unless officers obtained a search warrant from a judge. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor joined Scalia’s opinion.

Meanwhile, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said he would go further and rule that the “long-term monitoring” of the vehicle with a GPS tracking device violated the 4th Amendment regardless of whether the device was attached to a car. He took the view that the government violated a motorist’s right to privacy by tracking his movements for weeks on end.

The difference between the Scalia and Alito approaches is important. As both Alito and Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out, not every wireless surveillance will involve a physical interference with property. As wireless technology and cars become more sophisticated, Scalia’s test will become more and more irrelevant.

For example, what happens if the police started tracking a suspect from his car’s internal GPS navigation system? Or what if the police tapped into your cell phone’s GPS navigation system and then started monitoring you?