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US Supremes to hear warrantless GPS tracking case

Surveillance in the digital age

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The US Supreme Court has agreed to decide if the US Constitution requires police to obtain a search warrant before secretly monitoring location-tracking devices planted on the vehicles of suspects

Monday's agreement to decide whether the Fourth Amendment bars warrantless GPS tracking of criminal suspects came at the urging of the Obama Administration.

In August, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that FBI agents should have obtained a warrant before planting a GPS device on the vehicle of a suspected drug dealer. The ruling, which overturned a lower-court decision, ordered that all GPS evidence presented at trial be thrown out, effectively reversing Jones's conviction.

The outcome of the case could have profound consequences for millions of Americans. The GPS device that was secretly affixed to Jones's Jeep Cherokee allowed agents to track his position every ten seconds for a full month and was accurate to within 100 feet.

The device yielded more than 3,100 pages worth of data, according to documents filed in the case. The case comes as more and more law enforcement agencies are adopting similar surveillance measures.

Police Los Angeles, for example, are outfitted with air guns that can shoot GPS-enabled darts at passing cars, lawyers for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have claimed. They've added that police in Arlington and Fairfax counties near Washington used GPS devices 229 times from 2005 to 2007.

The appeals court ruled that the GPS devices revealed such intimate details about the target that they violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures unless law enforcement officers obtained a court warrant based on probable cause.

“A person who knows all of another's travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups – and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts,” the three-judge panel wrote in the August opinion.

Prosecutors with the US Justice Department disagreed. In a filing asking the Supreme Court to review the case, they said citizens have no reasonable expectation to privacy in their movements from one place to another. Their application asked that the appeals court decision be overturned.

The case won't be heard until after the start of Supreme Court's new term in October. More from the Freedom to Tinker blog and the ACLU is here and here. ®

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