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US Supreme Court says cops need warrant for GPS tracking

Posted on in Criminal Defense

With today's technology, constitutional issues can involve complex arguments in criminal cases. Last summer, this blog reported that the United states Supreme Court had agreed to review whether law enforcement's use of a global positioning system device without a warrant during a drug crime investigation was done in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Monday, the high court ruled unanimously that the Constitution requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant.

Although all nine justices ruled that the Constitution requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant, some questions may arise in the future from the Supreme Court ruling.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion for the court, in which four other justices signed on. Two other justices wrote concurring opinions that offer differing views of the constitutional interests at stake. The case arose out of an East Coast drug crime investigation.

Police had attached a GPS device on a possible suspect's Jeep, while the vehicle was parked in a public parking lot. Law enforcement tracked the suspect's every movement in the Jeep for four weeks. Police used the information to locate a suburban house, where law enforcement claimed the man stashed his cash and cocaine.

Police and prosecutors used the information to convict a man of serious drug crimes, and the defendant received a life sentence. An appellate court threw out the conviction based upon the illegal warrantless search based upon use of the GPS device.

Justice Scalia says that by "attaching the device to the Jeep," police were conducting a search. Justice Scalia says the attaching the device itself was a trespass and therefore rose to the level of a search, requiring law enforcement to first obtain a warrant under the Fourth Amendment.

Justice Samuel Alito found the police investigation to be unconstitutional, but not based upon the initial trespass analysis of the majority of the court. Justice says the police investigation violated the suspect's reasonable expectation of privacy. He refused to define when the investigation specifically became unconstitutional.

He says in his concurring opinion that there is some durational component to the analysis. He says, "We need not identify with precision the point at which the tracking of this vehicle became a search, for the line was surely crossed before the four-week mark." In the majority opinion, Justice Scalia apparently left room for a durational component, stating the high court may have to "grapple' with those issues in the future.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was aligned with the majority in finding the use of a GPS device constitutes a search and is subject to the warrant requirement. However, she wrote a concurring opinion to address the privacy concerns raised by Justice Alito.

She agrees that a person's reasonable expectation to privacy is a strong focus of the Fourth Amendment, and says that investigations may become unlawful in today's technological society even in the absence of a physical investigation. Justice Sotomayor reportedly says that accessing signals from GPS-enabled Smartphones by law enforcement may rise to the level of an invasion of privacy.

Source: USA Today, "Supreme Court rules warrant needed for GPS tracking," Joan Biskupic, Jan. 23, 2012

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