Supreme Court to Rule on GPS Privacy Issues

By Erin Harrison June 27, 2011

The highest court in the U.S. will decide whether police need to obtain a warrant before using a global positioning system device to track a suspect’s movements, according to media reports.

On Monday, Supreme Court justices said “they will hear the Obama administration’s appeal of a court ruling that favored a criminal defendant. The federal appeals court in Washington overturned a criminal conviction because the police had no warrant for the GPS device they secretly installed on a man’s car,” the Associated Press reported on June 27.

To date, several appeals courts have ruled that search warrants aren’t necessary for GPS tracking; moreover, the Justice Department has argued that so-called warrantless use of GPS devices “does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches. It also said prompt resolution of the divergent court opinions is critically important to law enforcement,” the AP said.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2010 that a GPS tracker was no different than trailing a suspect, which doesn’t require a warrant, the AP reported in April 2011.

Nightclub owner Antoine Jones of Washington, D.C., who was convicted of operating a cocaine distribution ring, was let off the hook after a three-judge panel of Democratic and Republican appointees unanimously threw out the conviction and life sentence; the judges said “prolonged surveillance” was a factor in their decision.

According to the AP, police put the GPS device on Jones’ Jeep and tracked his movements for a month.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that “collecting data from a GPS device planted on the Jeep of drug suspect Antoine Jones amounted to a search, and therefore required a warrant,” Wired said. It thus threw out a defendant’s life sentence in prison, according to TechZone360.

The Obama administration has subsequently urged the high court to officially rule whether a warrant or consent is needed, regardless of how long the surveillance might last, TechZone360 reported in May.

According to the AP’s June 27 report, “the Justice Department said GPS devices are especially useful in early stages of an investigation, when they can eliminate the use of time-consuming stakeouts as officers seek to gather evidence.”

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Erin Harrison is Executive Editor, Strategic Initiatives, for TMC, where she oversees the company's strategic editorial initiatives, including the launch of several new print and online initiatives. She plays an active role in the print publications and TechZone360, covering IP communications, information technology and other related topics. To read more of Erin's articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

Executive Editor, Strategic Initiatives

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