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.
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Justice Samuel Alito agreed with the general outcome of the case, but wrote separately to suggest the court should have based its decision on an examination of whether the owner of the monitored vehicle had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the long-term movements of his car.Skip to next paragraph
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Scalia’s property-based approach is “unwise,” Justice Alito wrote. “It strains the language of the Fourth Amendment; it has little if any support in current Fourth Amendment case law; and it is highly artificial.”
He questioned how it would apply in cases in which the government tied its surveillance to factory-installed GPS devices in vehicles or to smart phones equipped with GPS.
In past decisions in recent years, the court has examined whether a subject had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” at the time of the particular government intrusion. Scalia’s private-property approach had fallen out of favor through disuse by the court, but according to Scalia, had never been overruled.
“What we apply is an 18th-century guarantee against unreasonable searches, which we believe must provide at a minimum the degree of protection it afforded when it was adopted,” Scalia wrote.
“The concurrence [by Alito] does not share that belief. It would apply exclusively [the] reasonable-expectation-of-privacy test, even when that eliminates rights that previously existed,” he said.
Scalia said under his approach, Fourth Amendment rights would be protected under both the private-property and the reasonable-expectation rationales.
The high court appeal stems from the investigation of nightclub owner and suspected drug trafficker Antoine Jones in Washington, D.C., and Maryland.
Police and federal agents suspected Mr. Jones was involved in selling significant quantities of cocaine. They maintained surveillance of Jones and his nightclub. They installed a video camera near the club and tapped his cell phone.
Investigators suspected Jones maintained a stash house where he kept his drugs. In September 2005, they obtained court-authorization to place a GPS unit on Jones’s car.
The warrant required that the device be installed within 10 days of the judge’s approval. It also required that the device be installed in Washington. For reasons that are unexplained, police did not install the device until eleven days after the authorization and they did it while the car was in Maryland.
By violating the terms set by the judge, the warrant was no longer valid.