Feds Want Supreme Court to Allow Warrantless GPS Tracking

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

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In what could be one of the most significant tests of the Fourth Amendment in years, the nation's highest court will consider arguments regarding the freedom of movement, privacy, and whether warrants are required for GPS tracking by law enforcement.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is urging the Supreme Court to reverse a lower court's decision that overturned a conviction that was based partly on evidence collected by way of a GPS tracking device that had been planted on a suspect's vehicle without a warrant or court order.

The DOJ argues that “a person has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements (.pdf) from one place to another," and that requiring a warrant for placement of GPS tracking devices would seriously hamper criminal investigations.

“Prompt resolution of this conflict is critically important to law enforcement efforts throughout the United States. The court of appeals’ decision seriously impedes the government’s use of GPS devices at the beginning stages of an investigation when officers are gathering evidence to establish probable cause and provides no guidance on the circumstances under which officers must obtain a warrant before placing a GPS device on a vehicle,” the Obama administration wrote the justices.

Three prior rulings by circuit courts of appeal have upheld the practice of GPS tracking by law enforcement without requiring a warrant or court order.

The crux of the current matter under consideration is whether or not a 1983 Supreme Court ruling that allowed the use of a location beacon to track the movement of chemicals that did not require a warrant applies to GPS monitoring of suspects in an investigation.

The District of Columbia court of appeals has ruled that the 1983 decision does not apply to GPS tracking of persons, stating that a person “who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

The court ruled that the case “illustrates how the sequence of a person’s movements may reveal more than the individual movements of which it is composed."

In the mean time, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) is drafting legislation that would require law enforcement officials to obtain a court-ordered search warrant before conducting electronic tracking operations on cars and cell phones.

"I think that a lot of people have not really put their arms around the dimensions of this, the fact that everybody's got a handheld electronic device, a cell phone, a GPS system. Everybody's carrying them around everywhere and probably aren't thinking that much about the fact that someone may be keeping tabs on them," Senator Wyden said.

The bill will also address how geolocation information stored on systems that detail an individuals previous whereabouts should be governed in investigations.

Source:  http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/04/scotus-gps-monitoring/

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