GPS Subject Tracking is Set Aside (for the Moment)

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The high court has ruled that government may not use GPS tracking on subjects without obtaining a warrant. In the case of United States v. Antoine Jones, justices concurred that the 4th Amendment, which protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure had been violated when law enforcement agents placed a GPS tracking device on Antoine Jones’ Jeep Grand Cherokee. After Jones, a night club owner in Washington, D.C. had been accused of narcotics violations, they traced his movements for 24 hours per day for four weeks during an investigation period between 2004-2005 without a warrant or Jones’ consent. The court originally held that that GPS device’s installation was a trespass on private property and that its monitoring activities encroached on the individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy, thereby constituting a “search,” in a manner of speaking.



Jones’ case is being retried. In proverbial fashion, there’s more than one way to skin an elephant. The FBI needs evidence of Jones’ whereabouts, and there is more than one way to collect that data. Ellen Segal Huvelle, a United States District Judge for Washington, D.C. is allowing law enforcement to use historical cell-site information by way of court order under the Stored Communications Act. Setting aside the argument for the 4th amendment which helped to win Jones’ first case, Huvelle is exploring another legality. According to the “third party doctrine,” government officials may obtain some electronic records from cell service providers by court order instead of a warrant, and other judges have allowed such records in court. Jones’ prosecutors are now allowed to use phone location data gathered in 2005 before the GPS ruling was made.



So why didn’t prosecutors use cell-tower location data as evidence against Jones in the first place? Well, frankly GPS tracking is more reliable. What’s more, it is easier to use. A subject may be monitored from the comfort of a police station using tracking technology, whereas gathering previously stored data from a cell service provider requires much more effort, not to mention time and expense.



Jones’ attorneys are not happy with the recent turn of events. They accuse the FBI of trying to do the same thing in this case as they did in the previous one; that is, using data to pinpoint Jones’ whereabouts as evidence for the prosecutors. The lawyers for Jones still maintain that a probable cause warrant, not a court order should have been used to gather cell location information.

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Katherine Stephens

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