Supreme Court Rules Warrantless GPS Tracking Violates Fourth Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court put to rest any discussion of whether or not law enforcement needs to get a warrant to stick a GPS tracking device on your car. The answer is a unanimous “yep”. All nine court justices agreed that placing a GPS tracking device on someone’s vehicle without a warrant constitutes an unlawful search, per the Fourth Amendment. Justice Scalia (pictured) delivered the court’s opinion.

The case arose from the prosecution of a D.C.-area nightclub owner named Antoine Jones who was suspected of drug trafficking. In a joint effort, the FBI and the Metropolitan Police Department staked out the nightclub, aimed a camera at the facility’s front door, and tapped Jones’ phone. Based on information gathered from the above, they also put a GPS tracking device on a car belonging to his wife.

Law enforcement got a warrant for the GPS device that gave them 10 days to put the thing on Jones’ car, but they didn’t get it done until the 11th day. Thus, they essentially tracked him with a GPS unit without a warrant. The GPS did come through for law enforcement, helping them build a strong case and make an arrest.

Although Jones was eventually found guilty of the charges against him, the conviction was overturned on appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which found that the unwarranted use of the GPS device violated Jones’ Fourth Amendment rights.

Somewhat buried in this case, however, is a curious tidbit: law enforcement did get a warrant for the GPS tracking device, indicating that they knew it was important to have one, or presumably they wouldn’t have bothered. The issue was that they failed to install the device within the 10 days the warrant allotted them. What a difference a day makes.

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