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Supreme Court Addresses GPS Tracking and the Fourth Amendment


The issue of whether police need a warrant to use a Global Positioning System (GPS) device to track the movements of a person suspected of criminal activity has divided the nation's appellate courts. Some courts said "yes"; some courts said "no."

The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided that "yes" is the correct answer in U.S. v. Jones. In a unanimous decision, the judges said that law enforcement must obtain search warrants before using GPS devices to track an individual's movements. This decision could have a profound impact on those facing criminal charges.

Background of U.S. v. Jones

Antoine Jones managed a nightclub in Washington, D.C. and police suspected him of dealing drugs. Police placed a GPS device on Jones' car while it was on private property, without his knowledge or consent. Law enforcement officials monitored Jones' movements for approximately four weeks with the GPS device, generating and storing over 2,000 pages of data about Jones' location.

Police eventually arrested Jones for conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Jones went to trial and objected to the admission of the GPS data because police did not have a warrant. Jones argued that using a GPS device constitutes a search for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment and the police needed a warrant based on probable cause to do so. The court allowed the GPS data into evidence. A jury found Jones guilty and he appealed.

The Appellate Court's Decision

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with Jones that using a GPS device to monitor a person's movements 24 hours a day for a month is a search under the Fourth Amendment. The court rejected the analogies that the government tried to make to other cases where the court found it acceptable to monitor suspects' movements if they were in public or if police used radio beepers, reasoning that such "point to point" observation is different than the constant monitoring that GPS data provides.

The government appealed the appellate court's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court's GPS Decision

According to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in U.S. v. Jones, attaching a GPS device to Jones' jeep "encroached on a protected area," and was therefore a search. The search violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

The Supreme Court's decision could have a significant impact on how police are allowed to monitor those they suspect of crimes - particularly those whom they believe to be committing drug offenses. The decision comes at a time when police officers are increasingly relying on technology to collect information on criminal suspects - whether or not they are allowed to do so by law. This is the first U.S. Supreme Court decision to apply the Fourth Amendment to new forms of surveillance technology.

If you are facing criminal charges, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can discuss your situation with you and assess whether the police collected evidence properly.

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