Do police need a warrant to track your vehicle? The White House doesn’t think so, and they’re going to court to try to make it official. After the rulings, counterfulings, overrulings and general confusion of the lower courts on this issue, the Supreme Court decided in January of 2012 that in order to place a GPS tracking device on suspicious cars, police needed a warrant – sometimes. Although the ruling had some immediate impact, it failed to provide a conclusive answer to the problem due to the wording of the ruling and vague hints that certain exceptions existed. As a result, the Department of Justice filed a case with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia to test those exceptions.
While the details of the debate can be fairly confusing, the gist of it is that the courts seem to want police to acquire a warrant before tracking vehicles, and the police say that simply isn’t practical. Because warrants take some time to be issued, police are afraid they will lose cars as they move around before a warrant is issued. And if they do manage to maintain tabs on a car, it would likely be because detectives were able to follow it as it moved, which is essentially the same thing they’re getting a warrant to allow the GPS to do for them.
The Supreme Court, for its part, argued that placing GPS devices on cars without a warrant to do so constituted an unreasonable search, and was thus in violation of the fourth amendment. But police, who have had great success apprehending criminals with the aid of GPS tracking, aren’t willing to give up the fight just yet. They’ve countered that if it is the installation of a tracking device that is unconstitutional, then using the GPS in the phone or other mobile device of someone in the car to track the vehicle is legal.
The ACLU and other civil rights organizations have been watching this battle with great concern, and have praised the Supreme Court’s ruling. Meanwhile, several senators have introduced a so-called “GPS Act” to Congress in an attempt to provide definitive guidelines to police departments as to how they can utilize GPS in tracking and arresting criminals. This issue will likely be debated for some time to come, as courts and legislators attempt to define how police may legally use GPS tracking devices.