Should police be allowed to use a GPS tracking device to monitor someone – at anytime, for any reason, without their knowledge or consent – without first obtaining a warrant based on probable cause?
The Constitution Project’s Liberty and Security Committee, a bipartisan group of legal experts and former law enforcement officials, released a report this week recommending legal limits on how law enforcement agents can use GPS tracking technology to monitor suspects.
The DC-based organization issued a 13-page report on location-based GPS tracking, stating that a warrant should be required for any GPS tracking that lasts longer than 24 hours. It also says law enforcement should also be required to obtain a warrant before placing a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s property, such as a vehicle.
“Law enforcement should be permitted to use these powerful GPS tracking tools, but only where they can demonstrate probable cause and obtain a warrant,” the report says. “If such tracking is not considered to be a search covered by the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, then law enforcement would be permitted to conduct unlimited GPS tracking on anyone, anywhere and could do so for illegitimate reasons or for no reason at all.”
David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor and co-chairman of the report panel, said GPS tracking is a useful tool for investigators, but checks are needed so it’s not abused. “Today, the government has the technological ability to know where each of us goes at every moment of every day,” he said.
The committee’s 24 members include two former members of Congress, former FBI director William Session, a former U.S. Court of Appeals judge and a former chair of the American Conservative Union, and s Asa Hutchinson, who ran the DEA under President George W. Bush.
According to Mr. Hutchinson, “As the former head of the DEA, I understand the need for tracking bad guys, being able to secretly monitor a suspect’s movements. But this is a good balance between the needs of law enforcement and privacy issues.”
The report also requested that Congress amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to make probable-cause warrants mandatory before accessing an individual’s cell phone location data.
How would you feel if the police put a GPS tracking device on your vehicle without having a warrant? Without your knowledge, they would be able to track your movements 24 hours a day. If the police did this to you in order to gather evidence used to accuse you of a crime, would you feel that your constitutional rights had been violated?
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people facing criminal charges from unreasonable searches and seizures. Logically, you could assume that placing a GPS tracking device on a person’s car without a warrant would be precisely that type of unreasonable search. However, law enforcement authorities currently have the ability to do just that.
The White House maintains that warrants would hamper law enforcement investigations and, because the surveillance monitors movements made in public, they are not needed, according to the AP. The latter would presumably not apply to the secretive installing of tracking units on citizen’s cars.
The report comes just in time for November, when the US Supreme Court is set to weigh in on these issues. This fall the U.S. Supreme Court will decide decide whether and when use of a GPS tracking device installed on a car is a Fourth Amendment search. For more information on this case, please go here.