The U.S. Supreme Court might have delivered a big blow Monday to GPS surveillance techniques used by law enforcement.
In effect, the justices ruled that long-term surveillance of a vehicle by attaching a GPS device without an extended warrant is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
In three separate opinions, the nine justices confirmed that law enforcement’s placement in 2004 of a GPS tracking device on the vehicle of accused drug trafficker Antoine Jones’ vehicle for a period of 28 days constituted a “search,” as defined by previous case law concerning the Fourth Amendment.
The justices differed, however, on the particulars of how the GPS technology was utilized.
A joint FBI-police team in Washington, D.C., had a warrant, but it was only authorized for use within a 10-day period and only in the District of Columbia. Officers waited until the 11th day to attach the GPS device and did so in Maryland, outside of the warrant’s jurisdiction.
Writing for a five-justice majority, Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor, believed that further justification was needed before using a GPS device in the situation.
“It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case: The government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted,” Scalia wrote in the majority opinion from the Supreme Court.
However, Justice Samuel Alito — joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan — felt that police in the case had ample time to get an extended warrant and that Scalia and the majority in the case did not address important legal issues concerning searchers in the digital age.
“To date, however, Congress and most states have not enacted statutes regulating the use of GPS tracking tech¬nology for law enforcement purposes,” Alito wrote. “The best that we can do in this case is to apply existing Fourth Amendment doctrine and to ask whether the use of GPS tracking in a particular case involved a degree of intrusion that a rea¬sonable person would not have anticipated.”