Monday, January 23, 2012

U.S. Supreme Court: Warrant Needed to Attach GPS Device

The U.S Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the police violated the Constitution when they placed a Global Positioning System tracking device on a suspect’s car and monitored its movements for 28 days, according to Adam Liptak of the New York Times.

The justices divided 5-to-4 on the rationale for the decision, with the majority saying that the problem was the placement of the device on private property. The facts suggested that the police obtained a warrant but did not act on it in a timely manner nor did they carry-out the warrant as intended.  The police placed a GPS device on a vehicle while the vehicle sat on private property.

Liptak wrote that the 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.

Walter Dellinger, a lawyer for the defendant in the case and a former acting United States solicitor general, told the Times the decision “is a signal event in Fourth Amendment history.”

“Law enforcement is now on notice,” he said, “that almost any use of G.P.S. electronic surveillance of a citizen’s movement will be legally questionable unless a warrant is obtained in advance.”

Though the ruling was limited to physical intrusions, the opinions in the case collectively suggested that a majority of the justices are prepared to apply broad Fourth Amendment privacy principles unrelated to such intrusions to an array of modern technologies, including video surveillance in public places, automatic toll collection systems on highways, devices that allow motorists to signal for roadside assistance and records kept by online merchants, reported Liptak.

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