Can the police attach a GPS tracking device to your car without your knowledge and without a warrant? A U.S. Court of Appeals said no and overturned a conviction on that ruling. But many others, including federal prosecutors and the Obama Administration, say yes. The Supreme Court will have the final say in their upcoming term.
At question is whether or not the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures apply to GPS tracking devices. The case originated with Antoine Jones, who was tracked for over a month without his knowledge.
The GPS information was said to play an important role in his conviction. So when the Appeals Court ruled a warrant was needed for this kind of lengthy tracking, his conviction was overturned and he was released.
Interestingly, the Obama Administration is who appealed the Appeals Court ruling, asking the high court to have their final say. According to the Administration, GPS tracking devices should be allowed during drug cases without a warrant.
Their reasoning is that the devices don’t look inside the suspect’s life or property, merely tells law enforcement where they’ve been, something they could also determine by following the vehicle, an act which doesn’t require a warrant. This line of reasoning makes sense, but the potential is a little unnerving.
If the police can track vehicles without our knowledge and without a warrant, they are essentially being handed permission to track vehicles with no legal safeguards in place. Because a warrant requires the police to demonstrate probable cause (a good reason) for tracking and get prior approval from a judge, there are checks and balances to ensure they are only applied when necessary.
Without a warrant would the police waste their time (and money) tracking vehicles when there is no probable cause present? Perhaps. You don’t have to have probable cause to follow someone or to mount an old-school stake out, so warrantless GPS tracking would make building a case easier for the police.
Even though the reasoning seems sound, it’s hoped the court takes into consideration the cost of such a ruling. A ruling against the warrants would further blur the line between what is considered “private” and what is not.
The Supreme Court begins their next session in October when this case (U.S. v. Antoine Jones) will be one of many reviewed.