Supreme Court to rule on age of "Big Brother" surveillance

the Jones case is if using a GPS device without a warrant qualifies as a search or if it is considered intrusive and reaches beyond traditional surveillance tactics used by law enforcement like stake outs and tailing cars.

Law enforcement officials maintain that using the devices is simply a more efficient way to track a suspect and is no different than assigning officers to stalk an individual’s car or follow their movements, which police can do without warrants. Federal appeals courts in Chicago and San Francisco have approved the use of GPS tracking devices without warrants.

In further defense of GPS technology, a government brief argued, “Law enforcement has not abused GPS technology. No evidence exists of widespread, suspicionless GPS monitoring.”

In addition, the brief added that requiring a warrant to attach a GPS device to a suspect’s car “would seriously impede the government’s ability to investigate leads and tips on drug trafficking, terrorism and other crimes.”

But Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, a federal judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit who originally ruled on the Jones case, argues that GPS surveillance provides law enforcement information with more information than existing methods.

“Repeated visits to a church, a gym, a bar, or a bookie tell a story not told by any single visit, as does one’s not visiting any of those places in the course of a month,” Judge Ginsburg wrote. “A person who knows all of another’s travel can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

The case about to be heard by the Supreme Court stems from the investigation of Washington, DC nightclub owner Antoine Jones, who was suspected of selling cocaine. Police sought to place a GPS device on Jones’s car and due to the uncertain nature of existing laws surrounding their use, prosecutors obtained a warrant.

The warrant required police to install the device within ten days and within the District of Columbia, but the police did not do it until eleven days later and in Maryland. Police then said no warrant was required and tracked Jones’s movements for a month, eventually using the evidence gathered to convict him of conspiring to sell cocaine. Jones was sentenced to life in prison.