In a decision that was closeley watched by civil liberties group and the technology industry, the Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that GPS tracking devices constitute a “search” and that authorities must obtain a warrant before placing one on a suspect’s vehicle.
In a rare 9-0 vote, the Court ruled in United States vs. Jones that federal authorities who placed a GPS tracking device on an automobile belonging to an alleged drug dealer without a valid warrant violated the Constitution’s 4th Amendment right to protection from unlawful search and seizure.
The FBI and D.C. Metropolitan Police had originally targeted the defendant, Antoine Jones, on suspicion that he was involved in narcotics trafficking in 2004. Authorities received a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on Jones’s wife’s car. The warrant stipulated that it must be placed within 10 days of issue and within the District of Columbia. Instead, authorities placed the device on Jones car on the 11th day, and in Maryland, rather than DC. They then tracked Jones’ movements for 28 days and used the data they received to help win a conviction for drug trafficking.
Despite the expired warrant, a lower court upheld much of the 2,000 pages of data collected by the Government from the car-mounted GPS was valid because Jones had no reasonable expectation of privacy when driving on public thoroughfares. The nine Supreme Court justices, however, disagreed. In a majority opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court said that automobiles were clearly an example of the personal “effects” that the Constitution prevents from unlawful search and seizure, and that the GPS monitoring constituted a “search.”
The case has been closely watched by privacy advocates, especially after information surfaced that suggested the practice was commonly used by federal, state and local authorities. The latest ruling should bring about abrupt changes in the practice, as law enforcement will need to obtain warrants for any GPS monitoring.