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Supreme Court Issues Ruling on Police Use of GPS Devices

In a unanimous decision this January, the United States Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officials must obtain a warrant before they install global positioning system (GPS) trackers on the vehicles of suspects.

The ruling in United States v. Jones came after the review of a 2005 case involving convicted cocaine distributor Antoine Jones. Police suspected that Jones was involved in drug trafficking and decided to install a GPS device on his car to strengthen their case against him.

Though the police did obtain a warrant to use the GPS device, they failed to install it within the required time and in the correct jurisdiction. The warrant required the device to be installed in Washington, D.C. within 10 days of issue, but police attached the device when the car was in Maryland, 11 days after the warrant was issued. Thus, their actions technically constituted a search without a warrant.

U.S. v. Jones

The District Court judge presiding over the case suppressed the GPS evidence from the vehicle while it was parked at a private residence, but declared that Jones did not have an expectation of privacy while on public roads and allowed the evidence to be used when the vehicle was on public roadways.

The D.C. Circuit Court reversed this decision, stating that the use of a GPS device without a warrant was illegal. The Supreme Court upheld this ruling in its January 23, 2012, decision, declaring the use of the GPS device unconstitutional because it violated Jones’s rights under the Fourth Amendment, which protects United States residents from unreasonable search and seizures.

In the official court opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the installation of the device constituted a search and thus a warrant should have been obtained prior to its use. Four other justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, agreed. The other justices also agreed, but with reservations.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the focus should be less on the issue of unreasonable search and seizure and more on an individual’s expectation of privacy because of the long-term monitoring GPS devices allow law enforcement to conduct.

Setting Precedent for Cases Involving Electronic Tracking

United States v. Jones sets precedent for other cases involving the use of electronics to track suspects. Though the case specifically addresses the use of GPS devices, the Justices anticipate that their judgment will be applied to other cases involving electronics with tracking capabilities, like smartphones.

This case is an example of the law catching up with technology and may both protect citizens from illegal search and seizure and clarify the legality of the use of electronic tracking devices by law enforcement.

If you or a loved one have been the subject of a law enforcement investigation in which a GPS device was used, please contact an experienced criminal law attorney who can help you determine if the GPS device was used legally and help you understand your rights as a suspect.

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