Warrants Needed for GPS Monitoring, Supreme Court Rules
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday the authorities need a probable-cause warrant from a judge to affix a GPS device to a vehicle and monitor its every move.
The decision (.pdf) in what is arguably the biggest Fourth Amendment case in the computer age, rejected the Obama administration’s position. The government had told the high court that it could affix GPS devices on the vehicles of all members of the Supreme Court, without a warrant.
“We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,’” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote.
In a footnote, Scalia added that, “Whatever new methods of investigation may be devised, our task, at a minimum, is to decide whether the action in question would have constituted a ‘search’ within the original meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Where, as here, the government obtains information by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area, such a search has undoubtedly occurred.”
In all, five justices said physically attaching the GPS device to the underside of a car amounted to trespassing and was a search requiring a warrant. The majority said “the present case does not require us to answer” whether police may employ GPS monitoring of a vehicle via an already onboard navigation system “without an accompanying trespass.”
Four justices, however, said the prolonged GPS surveillance in this case — a month — amounted to a search requiring a warrant. But the minority opinion was silent on whether GPS monitoring for shorter periods would require a warrant.
All nine justices agreed to toss a District of Columbia drug dealer’s life sentence who was the subject of a warrantless, 28-day surveillance via GPS.
The justices agreed to hear the case to settle conflicting lower-court decisions — some of which ruled a warrant was necessary, while others found the government had unchecked GPS surveillance powers.
One of the Obama administration’s main arguments in support of warrantless GPS tracking was the high court’s 1983 decision in United States v. Knotts, in which the justices said it was OK for the government to use beepers known as “bird dogs” to track a suspect’s vehicle without a warrant. In that case, the police had the consent of that truck’s owner, which was not the case in the opinion decided Monday, Scalia wrote.
In the Supreme Court case decided Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had ruled that suspected District of Columbia drug dealer Antoine Jones had his Fourth Amendment rights violated with the warrantless use of GPS attached underneath his car for a month. The lower court had reversed Jones’ conviction, saying the FBI needed a warrant to track Jones.
Scalia’s majority opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor, said the warrant was needed because placing the device on the suspect’s car amounted to a search, requiring the warrant.
In a separate opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, and joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, Alito wrote that Scalia’s opinion was “unwise” and said it should have examined “whether respondent’s reasonable expectations of privacy were violated by the long-term monitoring of the movements of the vehicle he drove.”
“For these reasons, I conclude that the lengthy monitoring that occurred in this case constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment,” Alito wrote.
During oral arguments in the case in November, a number of justices invoked the specter of Big Brotherif the police could secretly attach GPS devices on Americans’ cars without getting a probable-cause warrant.
The last time the high court considered the Fourth Amendment, technology and privacy in a big-ticket case was a decade ago, when the justices ruled that the authorities must obtain search warrants to employ thermal-imaging devices to detect indoor marijuana-growing operations, saying the imaging devices carry the potential to “shrink the realm of guaranteed privacy.”
The Obama administration urged the court to reinstate the conviction and life sentence of Jones, a suspected cocaine dealer whose vehicle was tracked via GPS for a month without a court warrant.
The government told the justices during oral arguments that that GPS devices have become a common tool in crime fighting, saying it is employed “thousands” of times annually.