SCOTUS Upholds D.C. Circuit's Ruling on Warrantless GPS Tracking

By Dyanna Quizon, Esq. on January 26, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The advent of new technology typically provides novel considerations of applying age-old laws.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the GPS tracking of a suspect without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment's ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures," upholding the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal's opinion from 2010.

The case, U.S. v. Jones, stemmed from police action in which officers tracked the movements of suspected cocaine dealer Antoine Jones for over a month without a warrant.

Despite the unanimous decision, the justices differentiated on why warrantless GPS tracking constituted an unreasonable search. The majority believed the police's physical trespass upon the vehicle was unreasonable.

The concurring opinion, on the other hand, expanded the unreasonableness of the search beyond the physical trespass to all warrantless tracking because Jones had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" to his public movements.

In its 2010 ruling, the D.C. Circuit's reasoning followed the concurring opinion, stating: "Society recognizes Jones's expectation of privacy in his movements over the course of a month as reasonable, and the use of the GPS device to monitor those movements defeated that reasonable expectation."

Interestingly, Roger Easton, the principal inventor of the GPS, had urged the Court in an amicus brief to conclude that warrantless GPS tracking violated a suspect's rights.

With the Supreme Court's unanimous ruling, privacy activists are theorizing how it will be applied to other technological advances, such as the locations of mobile devices and remotely controlled aerial drones.

With technology evolving at a rapid pace in the last half-century, we expect more novel applications of the law to be decided in the federal courts.

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