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Police must get warrant before tracking you with GPS
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Police must get warrant before tracking you with GPS

January 25, 2012, 4:44 pm
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Antoine Jones can thank his lucky stars for the Supreme Court decision in his case this week. He had been sentenced to life but appealed all the way to the high court. The FBI had reason to believe that Jones was involved with illegal drugs, but they had nothing solid to go on. For months they followed Jones around, kept tabs on his night club and eventually put a GPS tracking device on his Jeep.  After about a month, they had the goods on Jones.

The GPS information linked Jones to a stash house with nearly a million dollars in cash and loads of cocaine. The problem for law enforcement is that they had no warrant allowing them to put the GPS on Jones Jeep in the public parking lot. Until now no one really knew whether a warrant was necessary before law enforcement could put a tracking device on your car. The issue had not come up.

Law enforcement use GPS, mobile phones, bank records, highway toll records and other electronic means to track people without warrant. The technology has moved so quickly that there is now no legal guidance on the issue of this kind of surveillance.  And the new technologies do not fit into the old framework of the 4th amendment, which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.

           The Fourth Amendment provides in relevant part that“[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” The problem here is that Jones was not complaining that his home or his person was searched. Nonetheless the court felt 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.” And whenever the government does engage in physical intrusion of a consti­tutionally protected area in order to obtain information, that intrusion may constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment.” By attaching the GPS to the Jeep the government trespassed upon a private, protected area.Unanswered Questions, other location tracking

It used to be that the constitution protected people against the government trespassing on their private property, or sticking its nose in places where we had a right to expect some privacy…an expectation of privacy. But the transmission of electronic signals involves no trespass. This leaves many questions unanswered. The ruling does not give guidance on what the government may or may not do.

Some argue that the Fourth Amendment, as a whole, was only meant to protect "things" from physical search and seizure; it was not meant to protect personal privacy. Congress needs to step up and pass the GPS Act now languishing in the legislative pipeline. No one wants the FBI poking around their cell phones or tracking them through tolls on the public highway


Author: Reynold Mason
Reynold N. Mason teaches law courses at Zenover Educational Institute In Atlanta, Georgia. He has been a judge on New York City Civil Court and, a Justice on New York State Supreme Court. Mason has been an adjunct professor of law at Medgar Evers College and Monroe College in New York. He has authored several legal opinions published in New York Miscellaneous Reports and New York Official Reports as well as the New York Law Journal. He lives in Atlanta.
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