Thursday, January 26, 2012

Warrant Required for GPS Tracking? Or Not?

The Supreme Court released a unanimous decision in support of requiring a search warrant to track movement of a criminal suspect. But is that what was really decided?

The controversy comes from a split justification as to what is actually required in the usage of GPS tracking. The case being reviewed by the Supreme Court was in regard to a nightclub owner in Washington D.C. who was tracked to a stash of money and drugs with the use of a GPS device. The result was that he was sentenced to life in prison.

Later an Appeals Court in Washington overturned the conviction. The reasoning of the court was that the police did not possess a warrant when they installed the GPS device on the vehicle. Nor did police seek a warrant in the following months as they continued to watch the movements of nightclub owner.

The Supreme Court was universal in support of a person’s 4th Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searched and seizures. The reasoning in how the 4th Amendment applies is what is causing the confusion.

Five Justices of the nine member panel released an opinion that the usage of GPS on a car is a type of “search”. In the ruling, the justices included mention of surveillance through smartphones or other GPS capable devices. The codification that the usage of GPS is a type of “search” has been interrupted by legal analysts that a warrant would be required similarly to any other search process, although the word “warrant” was not specifically mentioned in the rulings.  

The other four justices, while concurring that a “search” took place in the case, reasoned that the defendants “reasonable expectations of privacy were violated by the long-term monitoring of the movements of the vehicle he drove”. There was no mention of how much time was needed to be classified as “long-term”.

The release of the two opinions, was joined by an additional concurring statement by Justice Sotomayor, one of the five Justices agreeing that GPS tracking is a type of search, who agreed that privacy was expected not only when police use a GPS device on a vehicle, but also when no physical invasion occurred, reinforcing the idea that a warrant would be required to access information on GPS-enabled devices and smartphones.

There are still many unanswered questions. It is to be expected that see more cases testing these new boundaries in the future and perhaps further define the murky grey areas that still surround them.

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