SCOTUS Rejects Warrantless GPS Tracking

January 23, 2012

by Nicole Flatow

The U.S. Supreme Court held unanimously today that police must obtain a warrant before placing a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car.

The ruling in U.S. v. Jones invalidates the life sentence of Antoine Jones, who was convicted of conspiracy to sell cocaine using evidence obtained over the course of a month from a GPS device attached to Jones’ Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The justices split on the rationale, with a five-justice majority led by Antonin Scalia holding that the attachment of the GPS device to the car was a physical intrusion requiring a warrant under the Fourth Amendment.

“That ruling avoided many difficult questions, including how to treat information gathered from devices installed by the manufacturer and how to treat information held by third parties like cellphone companies,” explains The New York Times’ Adam Liptak.

The four-justice minority, led by Samuel Alito, said that the prolonged time period of the surveillance – a month long – amounted to a search and called the majority’s narrow holding “unwise.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who adopted the majority’s rationale, also wrote her own concurring opinion, in which she asserts that event non-physical intrusions might constitute warrantless searches, before concluding that the court need not answer those questions in this case.

“She makes it clear that she sides with those that see a problem with electronic surveillance too,” writes Marcy Wheeler for emptywheel.

Wheeler continues:

Ultimately, the other Justices have not tipped their hand where they’ll come down on more generalized issues of cell phone based surveillance. Sotomayor’s opinion actually doesn’t go much further than Scalia claims to when he says they can return to Katz on such issues–but obviously none of the other Republicans joined her opinion. And all those who joined Alito’s opinion seem to be hiding behind the squishy definitions that will allow them to flip flop when the Administration invokes national security.

[Photo courtesy of Quevaal]