Supreme Court to hear GPS tracking case

Published 28 June 2011

The 220-year old Fourth Amendment to the Constitution offers protection against unreasonable searches; the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving the police secretly attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s car to monitor his movement; the question before the Court: does the secret placement of a GPS device on a suspect’s car in order to keep tabs on him for an extended period of time require a search warrant

The U.S. Supreme Court must grapple with this issue: does a 220-year-old amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes it illegal for the police to use twenty-first century technology — technology which helps track criminal suspects.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the court on Monday said it would decide whether police should require a warrant to use a global positioning system (GPS) device to track a suspect’s movements. The case is likely to set new standards for the balance between privacy rights and new surveillance technology.

The Court agreed to hear an Obama administration appeal which argues that secretly attaching a GPS tracking device to the suspect’s vehicle to monitor his movements did not violate his constitutional privacy rights.

The justices will consider a ruling by a U.S. appeals court which said that the police should obtain a warrant before using a GPS device for an extended period of time covertly to keep tabs on a suspect.

Privacy advocates praised that ruling, saying it extended the protections the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment offers against unreasonable searches under to modern tracking technologies.


The appeals court threw out the conviction and the life-in-prison sentence for Antoine Jones, a nightclub owner in Washington, D.C., for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Police placed the GPS device on Jones’s vehicle and tracked his movements for a month during their investigation. Evidence obtained as a result of using the GPS device was crucial in his conviction.

In its ruling, the appeals court said extended electronic monitoring of Jones’s vehicle amounted to an unreasonable search.

Attorneys for the Obama administration said the issue was critically important to law enforcement efforts throughout the nation.

The attorneys said GPS devices could be very helpful in the early stages of an investigation as the police gather evidence. Requiring a warrant could hurt the government’s ability to investigate drug trafficking, terrorism, and other crimes.

Jones’s attorney, Stephen Leckar, argued before the Supreme Court that “The advent of satellite-based tracking technology has enabled the government to engage in 24-hour tracking of the movements of any private citizen for extended — indeed unlimited — periods of time.”


The justices will hear arguments in the case and issue a ruling in their upcoming term that begins in October.