Law Enforcement Must Seek a Warrant Before They Plant a GPS Device on Your Car

In a recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States the high court now places new restrictions on the government’s ability to track and trace suspects in criminal investigations. The issue was whether in today’s high-tech era, where privacy is becoming more a relic of the past (at least in the trend of cases coming down from the Supreme Court), can the government tag a suspect’s vehicle without any probable cause and trace his movements for months before bringing any attention to the courts?

In United States v. Jones law enforcement officials sought and acquired a warrant to place a tracking device on the car of the defendant’s wife. However, the warrant stated that the device must be placed on the car within ten days. On the eleventh day after receiving the warrant, the government placed the tracking device on the defendant’s car. The government then tracked the movements of the defendant for twenty eight days. The government used the information it received in compiling a case against the defendant.

During the trial the defendant moved to suppress all of the evidence obtained as a result of the illegally executed warrant. The trial court held that while the information received while the defendant’s car was at his house should be suppressed, the government was entitled to use the data it recorded from the defendant’s movements outside his home, because in that instance he had no “expectation of privacy” regarding movements outside his household. The appeals court reversed the trial court and held that the fourth amendment applied to these situations regardless of the defendant’s expectation of privacy, and since law enforcement was not acting pursuant to a valid warrant all evidence seized as a result of the illegal search should be suppressed. The Supreme Court sustained the D.C. Circuit court’s holding that admission of evidence obtained from warrantless use of a GPS device violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.

In its holding, the Supreme Court stated that use of a GPS device on a vehicle constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, the government should have sought to obtain a new warrant in order to legally install a GPS device for evidence collection in order to avoid trampling the defendant’s rights. The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.” In this case the government physically intruded, the Court even used the word “trespassory”, upon the property of the defendant for the purpose of obtaining evidence to be used against the defendant later on.

By requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before installing a GPS device to track a suspect’s movements, the Court has soundly rejected the idea that law enforcement may commence an intrusive investigation against someone without probable cause.

This decision is notably devoid of any mention of whether a government hijacking of a private GPS system is permissible. Such a situation would occur if a defendant’s car was equipped with a LoJack  system and the government hacked into that GPS system. Also absent was a clear indication that these types of GPS planting operations are per se in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court was clear in its majority decision that 28 days was far too long to operate a GPS system without a warrant, but it failed to clarify if a 10 day trace would pass constitutional muster.

In all, this is a great decision for the rights of individuals and a knock against the ever-crowded police state. While not all privacy concerns were addressed in this decision, this decision is definitely a step in the right direction for individual rights.

If you or a loved one are currently or has been the subject of a criminal investigation then you need the advice of a criminal defense attorney to help guide you through the process and to ensure that your rights are not ignored or waived. Call the attorneys at The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp today for your free consultation.