In January 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of United States vs. Jones that GPS data obtained without a warrant was inadmissible and, in fact, violated privacy rights as protected by the Fourth Amendment. Proponents of civil liberties and constitutional rights hailed the decision as a great victory, but authorities around the country are still trying to sort out what this means for those cases that have already been decided or are in the process of being decided. The ramifications extend beyond the case itself and could affect any device that use GPS technology.
The Jones Case
In 2005, Antoine Jones was arrested on drug conspiracy charges. He was convicted based on GPS data gathered over a 28-day period and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The problem came when lawyers discovered that Jones had been tracked without a warrant. Jones won an appeal that skyrocketed the case all the way to the Supreme Court. His conviction was overturned and ruled unconstitutional. “All I can say [is] I am very happy with the Supreme Court decision and I hope the decision helps millions of Americans preserve their right to have reasonable expectation of privacy,” Jones said. Jones, however, remains in prison, awaiting a retrial that uses evidence not obtained through a GPS tracking device.
Cell Phone Tracking
The new tactic that law enforcement agencies hope to use is cell phone tracking. Jones’s cell phone records were obtained under the argument that such data was “relative and material.” But will this hold up in a court of law? The ACLU did a public records search and discovered that hundreds of agencies across the country currently engage in cell phone tracking. Since many cell phones come with GPS tracking, would such a “search and seizure” not fall under the same Supreme Court ruling? Though law enforcement may have a short reprieve on not obtaining a warrant for cell phone data, many are pushing for stricter interpretation of the law. In fact, a bill is before the Congress now that would require authorities to obtain a warrant before they can gain access to any location information. The bill is appropriately called the GPS Act for Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance.
Since the January ruling, the FBI has had to turn off approximately 3,000 GPS tracking devices. Depending on the cases in question, public safety could be at risk. But America’s Constitutional rights must remain supreme.