Supreme Court says GPS tracking requires search warrant

As you know, the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects us all from unreasonable search and seizure. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the use of GPS tracking devices without a warrant constituted a search. This decision by the Supreme Court affirms a reversal of the suspects conviction.

Too often, when the rights of citizens bump up against the power of the police in a criminal investigation, the courts defer to the police. It is encouraging that not only did the Supreme Court uphold the protection from unreasonable searches, it did so unanimously.

Looking more closely at the Court’s reasoning in this case, not all the justices agreed as to why the use of the GPS tracking device constituted an illegal search. The majority opinion actually relied on an historic view of an illegal search based on trespass. Because the government intruded on the suspect’s property, in the form of his car, in order to obtain information, this constituted a search that requires a warrant.

The rest of the Justices agreed with the conclusion, but based their reasoning on the suspect’s reasonable expectation of privacy. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that even where there was not a physical intrusion onto a suspect’s property , it constituted a search if there was an invasion upon the suspect’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

While this decision does serve to define the use of GPS tracking device as a search, the concurring opinion points out a problem with basing this decision on the trespass of property. If the car for some reason already had the capability to monitor its own position, without the need for the police to attach a device, the trespass rationale would not apply.

As our courts try to keep pace with our advancing technology, it is important that our fundamental rights do not suffer. In our modern connected society, we both knowingly and unintentionally create a wealth of information about our location and social interaction. Court decisions in the coming years may reshape our definition of a reasonable expectation of privacy. We can only hope that our courts properly focus on the protection of our rights rather than the priorities of our criminal prosecutors.

Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Warrant needed for GPS tracking, high court says,” Pete Yost, Jan. 23, 2012