GPS is fast becoming a favorite crime fighting tool of police departments around the world. But Maryland police had a scare when a drug dealer nearly got off because of their use of a tracking device. The police had a suspect in Antoine Jones and house they knew to be a drug “stash house,” but, lacking a connection, couldn’t prosecute. Using a GPS tracking device seemed like the natural way to prove that Jones was connected to the drug dealing going on at the house and worthy of a conviction. It worked, too. The GPS tracked Jones to house, the DA prosecuted, and Jones landed in jail. But there was one problem. Police didn’t have a warrant to place the tracking device on Jones’ car.
Jones appealed his conviction on the grounds that, without a warrant, police did not have the legal right to track his vehicle. He won his appeal at a state appeals court and, in 2010, his conviction was reversed. However, a Federal Court in Washington reversed the ruling of the lower court on the grounds that Jones failed to prove that police could not have linked him to the stash house with the aid of the GPS device.
While the ruling was favorable for the police and people of Maryland, the situation set a precedent for criminals appealing convictions because police employed the aid of technology to do a task that normally would have been the job of a team of detectives working day and night. Even the ruling of the federal judge left open the possibility that convicted criminals can have convictions overturned if police use GPS without a warrant to do a job that there is reasonable doubt they could not have done themselves.
While on one level the sensitivity to our constitutional rights is comforting, and certainly necessary, the fact that police must now get a warrant to use GPS tracking devices to do in day or two what could have taken a team of detectives a week or more makes their job much more complicated. This issue is unlikely to go away soon, as criminals will continue to appeal convictions and claim invasion of privacy while police will counter that tracking, even if done with the aid of technology, does not violate any constitutional rights.