Is it Legal for Law Enforcement to Use GPS Tracking Without a Warrant? Justice Dept Says Yes

gps tracking legalGPS tracking without a warrant, law enforcement and 4th Amendment privacy rights: The legal system has been quite divided over whether law enforcement must obtain a warrant before placing a GPS vehicle tracking device on a suspect’s car.  In some cases, if someone is caught doing something illegal, and 1) the GPS tracking system information was used to convict him or her and 2) the GPS tracking system was placed by law enforcement without a warrant,  convictions are not possible or overturned. But in other cases, courts have upheld the use of evidence obtained by placing a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car without a warrant.

This week the US Justice Department entered the legal debate over GPS tracking, law enforcement and 4th Amendment rights. The Justice Dept is appealing a lower court ruling that reversed a criminal conviction because the police did not obtain a warrant for the GPS tracking device they secretly installed on a man’s car during a D.C. drug-trafficking investigation.

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed the life sentence of a Washington area man named Antoine Jones, saying the government violated Jones’ privacy rights in clandestinely tracking his movement for a month in a drug trafficking investigation. The initial ruling last summer says police can’t use GPS tracking technology to track a suspect’s car without getting a warrant. The full court, in a 5-4 decision last fall, refused to reconsider the decision. Now, the Justice Department, in a last-ditch effort, wants the Supreme Court to review the decision, arguing that it has broad implications for law enforcement across the country.

Federal prosecutors used data from a GPS tracking system to link Jones to an alleged drug house in Maryland, where the authorities found nearly 100 kilograms of cocaine and about $850,000 in cash. At issue in the Jones case is the extent to which his movement in a vehicle on streets in Maryland and in Washington was public and whether the warrantless GPS tracking constituted a “search” under the Fourth Amendment.

The Justice Department’s brief said agents investigating Jones, who ran a nightclub in Northeast Washington, did get a warrant from a D.C. federal judge to covertly install and monitor a GPS on a Jeep Grand Cherokee that Jones drove. However, the warrant was good for only 10 days and only within the District. Agents didn’t install the GPS tracking device until after 11 days when Jones‘ vehicle was parked in Maryland.  Jones was sentenced to life in prison and ordered to pay a $1 million fine, but the appeals court reversed the conviction.

The Justice Department said the D.C. Circuit’s decision conflicts with the Supreme Court’s “longstanding precedent that a person traveling on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another, even if ‘scientific enhancements’ allow police to observe this public information more efficiently.”

There will no doubt be many more federal and state court rulings about the constitutionality of warrantless GPS tracking. GPS tracking has become an invaluable tool for criminal investigators and law enforcement. Criminal investigators have found a variety of uses for GPS tracking. GPS tracking can be used to investigate suspected criminals, GPS trackers can be used to monitor individuals on probation or parole, and GPS tracking can be used to locate stolen items.