U.S. Supreme Court Rules that Police Need Warrant to Track Suspects

by Teresa Anderson

In a case handed down today, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police may not use a global positioning satellite (GPS) unit to track a person’s movements for a long period of time without a warrant. Doing so violates a person’s Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure, according to the Court.

In the case, U.S. v. Jones, Washington D.C. police were investigating Antoine Jones on suspicion of distributing cocaine. Police attached a GPS unit to Jones’s car and tracked his movements continuously for a month. Based on this information, police arrested Jones and convicted him on several drug charges.

Jones, along with his co-conspirator Lawrence Maynard, filed a lawsuit against the city arguing that the GPS information was obtained illegally. The city argued that it relied on case law established in U.S. v. Knotts, a 1982 case in which the court ruled that the police did not commit a search when it placed a beeper in a container to track a suspect’s movements from one place to another. In that case, the court ruled that a warrant was unnecessary.

In the current case, the Court ruled that the Knotts case does not apply. According to the Court, the Fourth Amendment clearly provides for the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Court ruled that the government clearly committed an unreasonable search on Jones’s “effects,” namely his vehicle, when it used a GPS tracker to monitor his movements.

In the written opinion of the case, the court noted that “It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case: The government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.”

photo by Amagill/flickr


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