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Unanimous Supreme Court: Get a warrant before installing GPS tracking device

The ruling upholds a broad right to be free from unreasonable searches. But it also highlights a struggle within the Supreme Court to balance law enforcement objectives with privacy concerns.

By Staff writer / January 23, 2012

This January 2011 file photo shows Yasir Afifi at his home in San Jose, Calif., where a GPS tracking device was placed on his car. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday, that police must get a search warrant before using GPS technology to track criminal suspects.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File

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Law enforcement officials must obtain a court-authorized warrant before using a GPS device to track the movements of a criminal suspect’s vehicle, the US Supreme Court ruled on Monday, eliciting praise from privacy advocates.

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In a unanimous decision, the high court said Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable searches prohibit police or federal agents from affixing a Global-Positioning-System (GPS) tracking device to a private vehicle and then recording the vehicle’s every movement 24 hours a day for weeks or months without prior court approval.

The decision is a setback for the Obama Justice Department, which had argued that the Constitution did not hinder its use of tracking technology to monitor vehicles traveling on public streets.

The opinion in US v. Jones (10-1259) is important because it upholds a broad right to be free from unreasonable searches. But it also highlights an emerging struggle within the high court to establish a consistent method of analysis that properly balances law enforcement objectives with privacy concerns.

As the government deploys an increasingly sophisticated and intrusive repertoire of surveillance technologies, privacy advocates warn that zones of privacy are fast shrinking in America.

“We have entered a new and frightening age when advancing technology is erasing the Fourth Amendment,” said John Whitehead, president of the Virginia-based non-profit Rutherford Institute, in a statement.

“Thankfully,” he said, “the US Supreme Court has sent a resounding message to government officials – especially law enforcement officials – that there are limits to their powers.”

Although all nine justices agreed that the government’s use of a GPS tracking device amounted to a search, the justices split 5 to 4 on how to properly analyze the issue.

Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia tied the question to Fourth Amendment protections of the sanctity of private property against government trespass. He said the government needed a warrant not just to attach the GPS device to a piece of private property, but to attach the device with the intent of obtaining information.

“We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted,” Justice Scalia wrote in an opinion joined in full by four other justices.

Joining Scalia’s decision were Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Sonia Sotomayor.

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