Supreme Court Reviews GPS Privacy Issues
On November 8, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of United States v. Antoine Jones (No. 10-1259), which examines the constitutional privacy rights of American citizens in the face of modern tracking systems based on GPS and other technologies.
The case has raised concerns among privacy groups about the warrantless use of GPS to track the movement of citizens for extended periods of time. Conversely, the Department of Justice contends that using GPS to track a vehicle on public roads provides no more information than what police could obtain through visual surveillance.
Issues Under Review
In this case, the Court will decide on two questions:
- Whether the warrantless use of a tracking device on Jones's vehicle to monitor its movements on public streets violated the Fourth Amendment; and
- Whether the government violated Jones's Fourth Amendment rights by attaching the GPS tracking device to his vehicle without a valid warrant and without his consent.
A decision is not expected until 2012.
In September 2005, the FBI and District of Columbia (D.C.) police attached a hidden GPS device to the vehicle of suspected drug dealer Antoine Jones in a public parking lot. The device recorded and transmitted the vehicle's movements for 28 days.
The tracking data showed Jones made frequent visits to a suspected stash house. Jones was ultimately charged with conspiring to distribute narcotics.
Jones filed a motion to exclude the GPS data at trial. The police had obtained a federal warrant to install the tracking device on Jones's vehicle in D.C. within 10 days, but they installed it in Maryland, a day after the warrant expired.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia admitted into evidence the GPS data collected while Jones's car was on public streets, but suppressed data from inside his garage. Jones was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and is now serving a life sentence.
Jones appealed the partial admission of GPS evidence to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. That court ruled that Jones had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the public movements of his vehicle over the course of a month, that the GPS surveillance constituted a "search" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and that a valid search warrant was required. View ruling at uscourts.gov
The Department of Justice petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case, which was accepted on June 27, 2011.
A number of other federal and state courts across the nation have ruled on the use of GPS-based vehicle surveillance by law enforcement. Some of these rulings are in conflict with the current Jones ruling and with each other. The Supreme Court case should provide clarity on the basic issues and set precedents for future court rulings.
The various rulings to date [Dec 2011] include:
United States v. Robinson (No. 4:11 CR 361 AGF)
Dec 2011: The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri issued a pre-trial recommendation saying the use of a GPS device to track a suspect's vehicle on public roads was not a "search" and did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights. This case has not yet gone to trial.
United States v. Hernandez (No. 10-10695)
Jul 2011: The U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, ruled that the warrantless use of a relatively unsophisticated GPS tracking device did not violate the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights. View ruling at uscourts.gov
United States v. Cuevas-Perez (No. 10-1473)
Apr 2011: The U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, ruled that the use of real-time GPS tracking for a reasonable period of time did not violate the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights. View ruling at uscourts.gov
United States v. Marquez (No. 09-1743)
May 2010: The U.S. Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit, ruled that a warrant is not required to install a GPS tracker on a suspect's vehicle for a reasonable amount of time while it is parked in a public place. View ruling at uscourts.gov
United States v. Pineda-Moreno (No. 08-30385)
Jan 2010: The U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, ruled that installing a GPS tracking device on a vehicle parked in the defendant's driveway without a warrant did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights. View ruling at uscourts.gov
United States v. Garcia (No. 06-2741)
Feb 2007: The U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, ruled that the GPS tracking of a vehicle on public roads was not a "search" subject to Fourth Amendment protection. View ruling at uscourts.gov
United States v. McIver (Nos. 98-30145, 98-30146)
Aug 1999: The U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, ruled that the placement of electronic surveillance devices, including a GPS device, under a suspect's vehicle in his driveway was neither a "search" nor a "seizure" subject to Fourth Amendment protections. View ruling at uscourts.gov
Foltz v. Commonwealth (No. 0521-09-4)
Apr 2011: The Court of Appeals of Virginia upheld a criminal conviction without addressing the appellant's question of whether the warrantless GPS tracking of his vehicle violated his Fourth Amendment rights. View ruling at va.us
Delaware v. Holden
Dec 2010: The Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle County, ruled that prolonged, warrantless GPS tracking violated the defendant's reasonable expectation of privacy and state constitutional rights. View ruling at delaware.gov
People v. Weaver (No. 0521-09-4)
May 2009: The New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the warrantless use of a GPS-based vehicle tracking device violates the state constitution. View ruling at ny.us
State v. Jackson
Sep 2003: The Supreme Court of Washington ruled that the use of a GPS-based vehicle tracking device with a valid search warrant did not violate privacy rights under the state constitition. View ruling at MRSC.org
The following cases also relate to GPS tracking, but by parties other than law enforcement:
Cunningham v. New York State Department of Labor
Nov 2011: The New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, ruled that the use of GPS devices to track a government employee's private vehicle during an internal misconduct investigation did not constitute an illegal search and seizure under the state constitution.
View ruling at NY.us
Villanova v. Innovative Investigations (No. A-0654-10T2)
Jul 2011: The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, upheld a ruling that the use of a GPS device to track a spouse's vehicle on public roads did not constitute an invasion of privacy.
View ruling at rutgers.edu
For the Record...
The GPS satellites operated by the U.S. Air Force cannot track you or anything on the ground. They are simply beacons, like lighthouses, that help GPS devices figure out where they are.
In the case of tracking devices, the location data is stored in a file and/or transmitted via wireless communications. GPS satellites play no role whatsoever in the storage or transmission of personal location information.
In June 2011, Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Jason Chaffetz introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, or "GPS Act."
If passed by Congress, the bill would provide clearer guidelines for when and how personal geolocation information can be accessed and used.
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