Supreme Court Rules GPS Tracking Requires a Search Warrant

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on January 23, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Police should probably get a warrant before attaching a GPS tracking device to a suspect's vehicle. Or so implies the Supreme Court.

The new technology has been used to track a suspect's every move -- 24 hours a day for weeks on end. But in a unanimous decision, the Court has ruled that the use of such a device is a search under the 4th Amendment.

 In most, if not all, situations police need a warrant.

The case involves the conviction of Antoine Jones, a suspected drug trafficker. Without first obtaining a valid warrant, police attached a GPS tracking device to his car and left it there for 28 days.

The government tried to argue that this was not a search covered by the 4th Amendment. But the Court disagreed. Police trespassed upon Jones' property when officers attached a GPS device to his vehicle. This would have been a search in 1791.

This was a very narrow ruling. The Court does not require a warrant for every instance of GPS tracking. Though it implies that a prolonged period of tracking requires a warrant, it does not discuss short periods of tracking.

Though still a search, short periods of GPS tracking may nonetheless be reasonable even without a warrant. This is especially true if there is reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe the suspect is engaged in criminal activity.

The Supreme Court has put law enforcement on notice with this decision, but its uncertainty has paved the way for a flood of GPS tracking lawsuits.

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