GPS Devices require a warrant

January 23, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the government cannot attach a GPS device to a person's vehicle without a warrant, and without complying with the conditions of the warrant if one is issued.  Although this case is likely to generate a lot of new controversy and confusion at the lower court levels, it is a major step forward in securing the rights and freedoms of citizens from unchecked government intrusion into our lives. 

The case of United States v. Jones started when a nightclub owner was suspected of being involved in cocaine distribution.  The government received a warrant that allowed them to place a GPS device on his vehicle, but the judge's order required it be placed within 10 days of the order, and within the District of Columbia.  Instead, the government agents placed the device on the 11th day, and did so outside of DC.  Jones was eventually tracked and arrested for drug offenses.  He was sentenced to life in prison for the crime.

The Supreme Court unanimously held that the government does have to obtain a warrant to place a GPS device on a private citizen's vehicle, and must comply with the terms of that warrant, but did not agree on why.  This means two things.  First, if the government wants to put a GPS device on your vehicle they must get a warrant.  While this may seem like a somewhat mute point since the government can subpoena your cell phone records to track you movements, it does at least require the government to make a showing to a judge or magistrate before they physically invade your personal property. 

We will have to see how the Courts ruling will impact criminal investigations and trials, but for now it is safe to say that the government has been put on notice that they can no longer violate the privacy of our citizens by placing physical monitoring devices on our property without first getting a judge's permission.