Should Police be able to track a vehicle using GPS without a Warrant?
The pending U.S. Supreme Court case of United States of America v. Antoine Jones puts modern police tactics in the spotlight of the Fourth Amendment search and seizure law, and it’s implications are serious. The case in question was decided last year by a D.C. Circuit Court. As Andrew Dat writes in his blog, the defendant, Jones, was arrested and charged with drug trafficking by the police. The cops suspected Jones was a narcotics distributor and placed an electronic GPS tracking device on his car. Using satellite technology, the police were able to follow Jones’s movement about town and collect enough evidence against him to charge him.
The problem was that the cops did this without a warrant and when prosecutors tried to put Jones away, Jones raised a Fourth Amendment defense claiming that the GPS tracking device was tantamount to an illegal search and seizure of his car. Jones faced a life sentence for his alleged crime, but the circuit court agreed with Jones’s argument and vacated his sentence.
Traditionally, the courts have held that technology merely enhances what the police could do on their own, there is no violation. Examples of enhancement are as simple as the use of a flashlight, the use of a helicopter, or use of binoculars. But this new use of technology – namely a GPS tracker, seems a bit over the top to me. All searches require a warrant unless there is an exception to the rule. With the advent of inexpensive GPS tracking devices, I can envision a day when all cars are simply manufactured with a GPS tracker already installed (the black box in modern vehicles do nearly the same thing). The tracking of a vehicle could become a simple matter of a few computer key strokes at the local police station. We already live in an age of “Big Brother.” When and where will it end?
The Fourth Amendment has always pitted the values of freedom against the need for law enforcement. The Constitution always seemed to default towards ensuring our freedom. Is this the line in the sand that needs to be drawn? It will be very interesting, and important, to see where the U.S. Supreme Court comes down on this decision. What do you think?