In a case likely to cause reverberations throughout the nation, the Supreme Court prepares to determine whether or not it is constitutional for police to track the movements of suspected criminals using a GPS tracking device without a warrant. While law enforcement departments across the country have already taken advantage of the devices to aid them in surveillance operations, this case stands out due to the unique circumstances surrounding the tracking and subsequent arrest.
In United States v. Jones, Antoine Jones stood accused of trafficking cocaine in the Washington, D.C. area. Police obtained a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on Jones’ car for the purpose of following his movements through the city. The warrant was valid for ten days, but police were unable to install the device until the eleventh day.
Using evidence obtained with the GPS unit, Jones was arrested and subsequently convicted. Because the device was installed after the original warrant expired, questions arise regarding the legality and constitutionality of admitting the evidence to court.
The Fourth Amendment of the constitution states that “the right of the people to be secure…against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated.” Such searches must be made only under the authority of a warrant which clearly states the place to be searched and the items to be seized. The use of GPS tracking devices to follow the movements of suspected criminals has admittedly fallen into a gray area when it comes to the issue of constitutionality.
Proponents of the practice claim that since the devices can provide no information about what is happening inside the vehicle or inside the garage in which a vehicle may be parked, its use is no different from asking an officer to follow the individual in a separate car for the purpose of observing his movements. Those who oppose warrantless GPS tracking argue that placing any type of surveillance device on a person’s vehicle without his knowledge and consent is, in the absence of a warrant, a violation of his constitutional right to privacy.
Two federal appeals courts have already reached opposing decisions on the issue of warrantless GPS tracking, meaning that the Supreme Court’s decision in this case will likely create far-reaching ripples. Whichever way the Court decides, law enforcement departments nationwide will feel the impact in their day to day surveillance practices and operational procedures.
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