June 28, 2011

Supreme Court To Rule On GPS Tracking By Law Enforcement

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that it would decide whether law enforcement personnel must obtain a warrant before secretly placing a GPS tracking device on a suspect's car to monitor their movements for weeks at a time.

The case marks the first time the high court will consider how the constitutional ban on unreasonable searches applies to global positioning systems, or GPS, tracking devices.

The case involves the criminal prosecution of Antoine Jones and Lawrence Maynard, two nightclub owners in Washington D.C. who were convicted of operating a cocaine distribution ring.  Police had used a GPS device to track Jones' Jeep for a month to gather evidence in the case.

However, a three-judge panel of a federal appeals court in Washington D.C. unanimously overturned Jones' conviction and life sentence, ruling that "the whole of one's movements over the course of a month" shows "far more than the individual movements it comprises."

The panel, which included both Democratic and Republican appointees, said the extended surveillance was a factor in their decision to overturn the conviction.  However, four other appellate judges in Washington D.C. said the entire appeals court should have heard the case, and faulted their colleagues for overturning Jones' conviction.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the Obama administration is arguing that warrantless use of GPS devices does not violate the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches. The Justice Department also says that a speedy resolution of the divergent court opinions is vitally important to law enforcement.

The Supreme Court has directed lawyers from both sides to address whether the government violated the respondent's Fourth Amendment rights by installing the GPS tracking device on his vehicle without a valid warrant and without his consent.

The Justice Department has said that GPS devices are particularly helpful in the early stages of an investigation, when law enforcement can eliminate the use of time-consuming stakeouts as authorities work to gather evidence.  Furthermore, requiring a warrant could hinder the government's ability to investigate drug trafficking, terrorism and other crimes, the department said.

They DOJ has also said that using a GPS device is no different from a beeper used by law enforcement, with the high court's blessing in 1983, to track a suspect to his drug lab.  In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that people driving on public roads have no reasonable expectation of privacy.  

However, the case involved just a single car trip, and the Supreme Court said only that someone "traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another."  

The ruling did not consider the limitless, minute-by-minute tracking that the Obama administration and other law enforcement agencies believe is permissible.

In a separate case in California, a three-judge panel in San Francisco upheld the use of a GPS tracking device without a warrant, saying it was no different from having officers follow a suspect.

That ruling provoked a scorching dissent from Judge Alex Kozinski, who said the court gave the government "the power to track the movements of every one of us, every day of our lives."

The Supreme Court case, United States v. Antoine Jones, No. 10-1259, will be heard during the nine-month session that begins in October.

The full D.C. appeals court ruling (pdf) can be viewed here.