The U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously Monday police must obtain a search warrant before attaching a GPS tracking system to a suspect's vehicle.
In doing so, the high court made clear that although technology has evolved to the point where it is nearly impossible to know we are being monitored, our basic right to be free from unreasonable government searches and seizures remains unfettered. The high court has wisely drawn a narrow line police cannot cross when conducting warrantless searches.
In the case, a GPS tracker was placed on the car of Antoine Jones, a suspected drug dealer in Washington, D.C., who was convicted of selling cocaine and sentenced to life in prison based on evidence of his movements obtained by the device. A warrant had been obtained, but it expired before the device was installed. U.S. Justice Department lawyers argued no warrant was really needed anyway, but an appeals court overturned Jones' conviction.
The high court upheld the appeals court's ruling.
"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 for the majority, which was signed by five of the nine justices. The remaining four agreed but for slightly different reasons.
"It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case," Scalia added. "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."
It was argued that use of a GPS devices is merely a high-tech version of trailing a suspect by car or on foot.
But there is a huge difference between planting a tracking device in a car and simply following someone. Attaching a GPS device to a vehicle is-- as the court ruled -- an invasive act and therefore an invasion of privacy on par with searching a house and should require a warrant.
The court's newly established threshold for obtaining a warrant is hardly onerous. Yet, it does serve to protect the public from police conducting fishing expeditions by planting GPS devices on most vehicles. That might not be easily or cheaply done today, but as technology evolves it likely will be as simple and as inexpensive as putting a piece of duct tape under a bumper.
The high court's ruling certainly won't be the last word on technology's impact on privacy rights but it established the proper legal foundation.