Supreme Court: Warrantless GPS Tracking Violates 4th Amendment

The Supreme Court ruled today that the government cannot use warrantless GPS tracking devices because doing so violates a suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted search and seizure.

Writing for the Court, Justice Scalia held:

that the Government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a “search”

in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

There was a strong disagreement, however, between Justice Scalia and Justice Alito who wrote a concurring opinion.

Justice Scalia cited centuries-old case law involving “trespass to chattels” (i.e., property) for why the Fourth Amendment was violated in this case involving an accused D.C.-area cocaine dealer, Justice Alito focuses on “a 21st-century surveillance technique, the use of a Global Positioning System (GPS) device to monitor a vehicle’s movements for an extended period of time.”

In Justice Alito’s eyes, the nature of the crime and the length of government surveillance are key aspects of a high-tech search and seizure controversy. He contends that “relatively short-term monitoring of a person’s movements on public streets” by GPS is fine because of the length of tracking, but he remains concerned about “the use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses.”

These issues are irrelevant, Justice Scalia contends, because a Fourth Amendment search and seizure violation does not depend on the nature of the alleged crime.

For criminal defendants and civil liberty advocates, the Court’s majority opinion in United States v. Jones may have just muddled things up a little more.

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