June 27th, 2012
US Justice Department prosecutors pleaded with a federal appeals court to allow the placement of GPS tracking devices on the vehicles of suspected criminals without first obtaining a search warrant.
This argument goes against the Supreme Court ruling in the Jones case back in January which we have reported on extensively here at RMT, and asks the court to reconsider their decision. The ruling makes the practice of placing a tracking device without obtaining a warrant illegal, as it violates an individual’s Constitutional rights.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing the arguments, and the Obama Administration claims that the Jones ruling was not specific enough. Basically, because it did not make clear the need to obtain a warrant in each and every situation, a loophole was left wide open which actually allows GPS tracking despite the court’s intentions.
The brief submitted to the court argues that “requiring a warrant and probable cause would seriously impede the government’s ability to investigate drug trafficking, terrorism and other crimes,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The brief also argues that the tracking of a person’s movements using a GPS device is only a “limited intrusion” on one’s privacy.
In US v. Jones, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the use of GPS tracking devices on the vehicles of suspected criminals without a valid warrant violated the Fourth Amendment, more specifically unreasonable search and seizure. Those who advocate for privacy hoped that this decision would have set the precedent for cases dealing with warrantless tracking for all kinds of electronic surveillance devices besides GPS devices.
Currently, law enforcement is able to access digital records such as emails and cellphone location data without obtaining a warrant. However, searches within schools and at border crossing locations have been deemed exempt from the warrant requirement.
May 7th, 2012
In a highly watched decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that secretly placing a GPS tracker on a suspect’s vehicle constitutes a search and is subject to fourth amendment rules. Mr. Jones, the defendant in the case, probably felt a sense of closure and relief, but the decision has marked the beginning of a tumultuous policy reworking in the field of law enforcement. Police and national agencies are scrambling to figure out how they can comply with the court’s direction and still continue using the investigative power of GPS. Most troublesome are the trackers that are currently out in the field, collecting information on suspects, but may not hold up under legal scrutiny.
FBI field offices across the nation quickly acted to consider each GPS tracker in use. If one was not under the authority of a warrant and might not meet the criteria for a “reasonable” search, the Bureau had to stop communicating with it. This ending of communication is irreversible, so the investigations in question lost valuable leads by abandoning the trackers. Unfortunately, agents didn’t have a choice, since any prosecution supported by these trackers’ data would be quickly thrown out by a judge.
It is unclear exactly how many GPS trackers the FBI disabled. The reported number varies widely from 250 to 3,000, depending on who is speaking. The Bureau is understandably wary of making information about ongoing investigations public, and its field offices are still in the process of reporting final numbers. We can only imagine how many other devices were disabled by state and local police across the nation, discarding valuable evidence that was central to investigations of many kinds.
It is interesting to consider how many individuals might have been under watch by law enforcement without their knowledge. Now, they may never know that anyone was watching them—that is, until they discover disabled GPS trackers concealed in their vehicles. Of course, this is not to say that all GPS tracking projects are illegal. Many agents and officers, anticipating the Supreme Court’s ruling, long ago began obtaining warrants to support their use of GPS devices. These investigations will continue and will likely display the huge advantage that global positioning gives law enforcement when it is used carefully.
May 5th, 2012
The Baltimore City Police Department, Baltimore Gas & Electric, and local cell phone companies are likely to be extremely thankful for law enforcement use of GPS tracking devices today. Police hit a GPS tracking device on an automobile suspected os being involved in repeated thefts in the Baltimore area. Police obtained a warrant from a judge to use the GPS tracker per a controversial recent U.S. Supreme Court mandate. The case says volumes about GPS tracking in law enforcement — to wit, that it works, and that warrants don’t stop the law enforcement process.
The police took their time in building the case. Repeated thefts, all involving metal, were taking place all over the area: $2K worth of copper and from BG & E land in Owings Mills, more copper stolen from a cell phone tower in Parkton, copper plates and wires stolen from a cell phone tower elsewhere in Parkton, wires and grounding plates thieved from a cell phone tower near Loveton Circle Sparks. In nearly every case, a Honda Civic was reported at the scene; police reports show tracking showed the Civic at the same recycling center the day after every theft. Thanks to accurate GPS tracking, police nabbed the thief after a final heist involving the theft of a bronze statue.
To Warrant or Not to Warrant?
For years, police, FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies would hide GPS tracking devices on automobiles owned by suspected criminals. The GPS would act in lieu of a stakeout, saving law enforcement officials millions of dollars and thousands of man hours dedicated to tracking. Those efforts were, according to many law enforcement agencies, upended when the United States Supreme Court ruled last year that a warrant must be obtained before a GPS tracing device could be hidden on a suspect’s vehicle.
Good Police Work Still Works
At the end of the day, what finally got this thief put into custody was good, solid police work. Police built a case. Police obtained a warrant. Police tracked the vehicle. Police built a case that would stand up in court. Police made the arrest. Thanks to methodical law enforcement work supported by well implemented GPS technology, one more Baltimore thief is behind bars.
January 28th, 2012
In a historical case, the highest courts in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled that law enforcement are required to obtain a warrant before monitoring a suspect with a GPS tracking device. Since the technology was developed, countless innovations have been developed for GPS tracking. One of the most controversial uses of the technology has been police surveillance. Courts across the United States have been split on the constitutionality of warrantless GPS tracking. The issue was recently heard before the Supreme Court, in the historical United States v. Jones case.
The court’s decision is a “landmark ruling in applying the Fourth Amendment’s protections to advances in surveillance technology,” said Andrew Pincus, a Washington lawyer, in a brief filed on Jones’ behalf. The case in question involved Antoine Jones, a D.C. nightclub owner who received a life sentence after police found a large stash of drugs in his vehicle. The sentence was overturned by the D.C. Court of Appeals, due to the fact that much of the evidence obtained was provided by information gathered from the GPS device illegally attached to Jones’ vehicle.
This high-profile case was the latest in a string of similar cases receiving mixed rulings across the country, and caught the Obama Administration’s attention. The Administration asked that the high courts reinforce the original conviction. The primary argument for Jones’ sentencing is that GPS tracking is no different than other means of surveillance, which do not require a search warrant.
The Supreme Court Judges unanimously disagreed, setting an important precedent for tracking technology and privacy rights. “We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,’” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia. Ironically, the officers on Jones’ case did obtain a warrant before attaching the tracking device to his vehicle. They only had ten days to attach the device, and waiting until that period had expired before using it, violating the warrant.
December 11th, 2011
The use of GPS tracking and the concerns over invasion of privacy have reached the highest court in the land. The United States Supreme Court is set to hear arguments concerning the use of GPS tracking devices by law enforcement without a warrant. A Washington, DC, Court of Appeals has already ruled that police must indeed obtain a warrant before they can track an individual using GPS technology, especially if they intend to submit that evidence in a court of law.
In January 2008, AntoineJones was convicted of drug trafficking; however, that conviction was overturned by an appeals court who ruled that evidence obtained through GPS tracking was deemed inadmissible because no warrant had been issued for the sustained surveillance. Data from the unit attached to Jone’s Jeep had led police to large quantities of cocaine stored in a stash house; police also found $70,000 in Jone’s vehicle.
Jones appealed his conviction, and the lower court ruled that the case did indeed violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure; however, the Federal Justice Department argues that a person’s movements outside his home are public and that such surveillance does not constitute an unreasonable “search.”
Lawyers fighting to uphold the need for a warrant argue that sustained surveillance, a month in the above-noted case, is an invasion of privacy because no one person is apt to observe another person’s movements 24-7 like GPS tracking can do. On the other hand, federal officials maintain the need the allow law enforcement to monitor a suspect’s movements unhindered in an effort to prevent a crime or to apprehend the perpetrator of a crime. They cite United States vs. Knotts from 1983; in that case, a beeper was used to track a suspect to a drug lab.
The court ruled that the use of the beeper had not violated the man’s Fourth Amendment rights. Both sides have strong arguments and evidence to support their positions.
Twelve “friend of the court” briefs were filed after the Court of Appeals overturned the conviction, and only one sided with the federal government’s position. The concern is over the large scale use of GPS technology today and how much bigger “Big Brother” will get if regulations are not put in place. Muslim Americans, in particular, feel they have been the target of unwarranted surveillance in recent years as a result of 9/11. Is a secure society more important than a citizen’s right to privacy? Should law enforcement be allowed to track a suspect without the consent or knowledge of that individual? That is all for the courts to decide.
December 6th, 2011
We’ve been closely following the case currently being decided in the US Supreme Court on the issue of warrantless tracking and its use by law enforcement. To summarize, Antoine Jones of Washington DC was convicted back in 2008 for the possession and distribution of over 50 kilos of cocaine and sentenced to life in prison. Jones is appealing to the Supreme Court as DC authorities did not follow the guidelines of the warrant initially issued, tracking Jones via GPS device affixed to his vehicle after the warrant had expired. His defense claims this makes the evidence inadmissible.
Michael Dreeben, deputy solicitor general for the Department of Justice, argued that in Jones’ case, his privacy was not at all violated. He claimed Katz v. US set the precedent, a case where the court decided visual surveillance and surveillance done with a beeper was perfectly fine and not at all an infringement on one’s privacy as long as the car is traveling on a public roadway. “What a person seeks to preserve as private in the enclave of his own home or in a private letter or inside his vehicle when he is traveling is a subject of Fourth Amendment protection. But what he reveals to the world, such as his movements in a car on a public roadway, is not.”
Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed claiming the current case uses technology far superior to the outdated beeper technology of the Kats v. US case. “That was 30 years ago. The technology is very different and you get a lot more information from the GPS surveillance than you do from following a beeper…That’s a lot of work to follow the car. They’ve got to listen to the beeper; when they lose it, they have got to call in the helicopter. Here, they just sit back in the station and…push a button whenever they want to find out where the car is. They look at data from a month and find out everywhere it’s been in the past month. That seems to be dramatically different.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that Dreebens argument sounds as if he’s claiming only one’s home is safe from monitoring and invasion of privacy. Justice Stephen Breyer brought up the fact that if this case does not go Jones’ way, it opens up the door to authorities to affix GPS devices on just about any car they wish. Dreeben was quick to disagree, “It involves limited surveillance of somebody who was suspected of drug activity…This court has said that trespass is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a Fourth Amendment violation.”
Both sides raise good points, but this author hopes that the case is decided in Jones’ favor for the protection of the privacy of citizens in the future. What are your thoughts on this issue? Let us know by leaving a comment.
We’ll keep you posted here at the RMT blog with new information on the case as it becomes available.
December 2nd, 2011
A case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court addresses the role of GPS tracking technology in law enforcement. At issue is the FBI’s use of a GPS tracker secretly attached to the car of a suspected drug dealer. The accused individual (facing a life prison sentence for large-scale drug sales) and his lawyers claim that the tracking was a violation of his fourth amendment rights. The verdict in this case will answer an important question that has so far been unclear: Can local police and national law enforcement agencies use GPS technology to track someone without having a warrant to do so?
Law enforcement claims that placing a GPS device on a car in a public area is the same as physically following the car (which is permissible without a warrant). It simply makes the process more efficient, more thorough, and less expensive for taxpayers. By allowing law enforcement to make use of new technology, they can better protect the public and conduct surveillance of suspects in a way that does not consume time and resources with stakeouts or car chases.
The defense argues that using GPS is far more invasive than simply following a suspect’s car temporarily. The tracking is constant, total, and continues when the suspect is on private property (which cannot be searched by police without a warrant). The fourth amendment protects citizens against “unreasonable search and seizure,” and the defense in this case claims that tracking a citizen 24 hours a day without his knowledge is unreasonable. At issue is whether the use of GPS technology revealed more information than a traditional search conducted under established policies would have. If so, the court will likely rule that the FBI should have obtained a search warrant before using the GPS tracker.
Many organizations advocating privacy rights, in addition to one of the inventors of GPS technology, have been outspoken in their concern about this case. They fear the potential abuses that are possible if police are given the right to secretly track the location and activities of citizens thoroughly and constantly without charging them with a crime. This ability has never been available in a cost-effective way, but today it is a real possibility and the upcoming ruling by the Supreme Court will provide important guidance as law enforcement agencies determine exactly how to use this powerful new tool.
December 1st, 2011
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.
Photo Courtesy of MethTICALman through Flickr Creative Commons
November 30th, 2011
An article on a Dallas, Texas, news site (KDAF-TV) puts an interesting spin on GPS tracking technology. Right now, the Supreme Court is trying to decide whether or not warrantless GPS tracking is illegal. Yet (as the article points out), Americans allow themselves to be tracked regularly without much concern at all. You may even allow the world to track you regularly. How? Social networking sites are the main culprits here.
Think about sites like Foursquare and Facebook. These sites allow users to log into a tracking feature via cell phone. When you “check in” to one of these sites, you are allowing governments, friends, and family members to know where you are at all times. Even though this is a form of warrantless tracking, many people are willing to give up privacy rights in order to use this new technology.
Based upon this fact, why is the Supreme Court trying to decide if warrantless tracking is illegal or not? Could it be because Americans want the right to log in and out of a tracking program freely? The term “free” here may be something of a joke though. Even if you haven’t logged onto Foursquare of Facebook, your smartphone is always tracking you — especially if you allow an app to find your current location.
The truth of the matter is that we’re so wrapped up in technology as a society, most of us would have a hard time living without those social networks and smartphone apps. Sure, these sits and apps cross the privacy line every day, but does anyone really care?
Photo Courtesy of Digitpedia
November 25th, 2011
In 2008, the state of New York placed a GPS tracking device on Michael Cunningham’s car. The vehicle that Cunningham was driving at the time was not a state vehicle. When accused of spending work hours doing other things, Cunningham discovered that a tracked had been placed on his car. Out of anger, he decided to bring the state of New York to court.
Yesterday, a New York court upheld the state’s decision to use GPS technology to track Cunningham. The court found that Cunningham’s employer was justified in his actions, since Cunningham has been caught falsify time sheets prior to the GPS tracking incident. In defense of Michael Cunningham is the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The Civil Liberties Union plans to bring the case to a top New York court. The Union expects a top-level New York court to see this case in a different light. Union attorneys argue that Cunningham was illegally tracked, and that the state did not have a right to track Cunningham’s personal vehicle – regardless of his behavior during work hours.
Interestingly, police are not allowed to place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle in the state of New York without a warrant. This ruling was made in 2009 by the New York Court of Appeals. Based on this fact, some wonder how a mid-level court could rule in favor of the state when authorities don’t have a similar right.
Cunningham’s case will now be brought to a high-level NY court. It’s safe to say that many employers and employees alike are closely watching this case for the final verdict.