Supreme Court Will Weigh In On Warrantless GPS Tracking

from the finally dept

We’ve been covering for a while now the rather mixed results from courts concerning the legality of police sticking a GPS transmitter on a car without a warrant in order to track a suspect. While some state courts have said such tracking is illegal, most federal courts have gone the other direction, saying that it’s fine. Last summer, we noted that the DC Circuit court made a somewhat surprising ruling, saying that when the GPS tracking was “long-term,” it suddenly switched from being legal to illegal. This odd standard (how long the tracking goes on for) seemed somewhat arbitrary. But, more importantly, the fact that different federal circuits disagreed with the legality of such things set up what we felt was an inevitable Supreme Court case.

And now it’s here. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear the appeal on that DC circuit case, United States v. Jones. This means, of course, that the issue will be settled once and for all, assuming the Court gives a clear ruling (something it doesn’t always do). I do worry that it will merely cement what the other appeals courts have said, and basically diminish the Fourth Amendment even further. The feds have made it clear that they’d like to ignore the Fourth Amendment in such cases, and it would be nice if the Court tells them they cannot do that.

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Comments on “Supreme Court Will Weigh In On Warrantless GPS Tracking”

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Jake says:

The “long term” part isn’t quite as illogical as it sounds. A warrant isn’t necessary for officers in a patrol car to covertly follow a vehicle they suspect might be involved in some kind of criminal activity, so presumably an officer on foot slapping a tracer on a car so another unit can be routed to tail it would be covered under the same precedent. A tracker that’s logging data that will be recorded and used as criminal evidence would be another matter.

FM Hilton (profile) says:

In what way does GPS tracking not differ from wiretapping?

Where does the line get crossed that a suspect can be tracked using a device with a warrant to one that does not require it?

That’s the dangerous part of this entire issue: that you don’t need a compelling and legal reason for using a GPS tracking device except that the authorities “want to”, and that is why this is going to the SC.

Oh, I can see all kinds of possibilities for abuse and misuse of this if the SC does not rule against it.

The CIA, FBI and the other government agencies would jump at the chance to track people without probable cause and warrants.
I won’t even mention the NSA, or the Patriot Act, which would undoubtedly be ‘updated’ to reflect this, should it become law.

But I’m terrified of what the Court will do in this case-their past history in the last few years has not given me confidence (with good cause) that they even recognize the 4th Amendment as a given right.

We’re sliding down that slippery slope at breakneck speed.

abc gum says:

Re: News Flash!

“@abc gum: I would not be too sure about that. This latest batch of rulings leads me to believe the SCOTUS will allow it.”

Do you have examples of the latest batch for which you refer?
And allow what – weakening of the 4th amendment? How does this disagree with the post to which you responded?

Eventually, automobile manufacturers will be required to install GPS devices in all vehicles. This has already been debated as a means for road use taxation. The premise is rather stupid, but then so are its authors. I suppose that disabling the device would then be punishable under the tax code.

Anonymous Coward says:

I am guessing that at least part of the argument will be that the cars are on public roads, and as such, could be monitored by other means legally (such as cameras or police surveillance) without requiring a warrant, so why would this sort of device be much different?

I am suspecting a ruling that permits this sort of thing, but places some restrictions (like not being able to use data from when the car is not on public roads, example as the basis for a warrant). It wouldn’t be granting officers any rights that they do not already have, considering that the data the could get could also be obtained by hiring enough officers to follow all the cars that are of interest to them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Police can (and do) perform surveillance work now without a warrant. They do not need to have a court grant them the right to see what they can see with their own eyes. There is also no specific law against CCTV cameras, and in fact many cities have them on major roads and such. Some toll roads have cameras that track every plate the enters and exits the road in order to charge for usage.

Imagine the police put, at every corner, a device that reads every license plate going by and databases it. Would that be illegal? Would it be illegal if the device was replaced with 100 officers all taking notes?

The streets are public, and the expectation of privacy is very, very low. You are driving around in a car with plenty of windows and a government mandated ID tag on it in plain view. There isn’t much privacy.

The GPS devices replace the officer’s eyes. They don’t record conversations or violate privacy.

AJ says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“The streets are public, and the expectation of privacy is very, very low. You are driving around in a car with plenty of windows and a government mandated ID tag on it in plain view. There isn’t much privacy.”

How about on my 1000 acre ranch? Should i be tracked on my private property without a warrant as I drive around? How about in a private parking garage?

“Would it be illegal if the device was replaced with 100 officers all taking notes?”

If they wanted to put a 100 officers all taking notes on my property, they damn well better have a warrant!

“The streets are public”

Your talking about the city, there are thousands of miles of private roads that are traveled daily in the rural areas. Would the GPS turn off when you hit a private road?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

My feeling is that SCOTUS will put a restriction, stating that information gleaned from GPS that involves “non-public areas” would not be allowed to be used as evidence, or used as the basis of a warrant.

As for your property, the police could put 100 people on your property line and have them record all of your visible activities. What they can see with the naked eye is very much within the scope of the law.

Brian Schroth (profile) says:

While the 4th Amendment concerns on this are legitimate, this particular thing (GPS devices being attached to cars) should not be allowed for a much more straightforward reason.

My car is my property. You do not have the right to affix things to my property. Because it’s my property, not yours. Only I have the right to make modifications to my own property, and that includes attaching devices. If someone else modifies my property, that’s vandalism.

Ron Rezendes (profile) says:

Re: Coming soon, Sony Smart Cars w/GPS embedded and no stereo!

Sony says you do NOT own that car, or any other device you THOUGHT you purchased.

You only licensed it, and as a licensee you are subject to a revision of the capabilities of your device at their whim, invasion of privacy into your life which you gave up when you “licensed” said product, and Sony will sue you if you try to do anything to THEIR device, which you only licensed.

Nicedoggy says:

Re: Re:

Are you sure you own it?

Can you go to any mechanic to do any job on the vehicle without having to break the code to read the car self-diagnostic computer?

Right there if you try to break that is probably a DMCA violation.

IP law is getting so expansive that soon you probably won’t own anything anymore it will all be licensed to you by someone with less than good intentions.

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