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US Supremes: GPS tracking requires warrant

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The US Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that police need to request a warrant before attaching GPS tracking devices to suspects’ cars.

“We decide whether the attachment of a Global-Positioning-System (GPS) tracking device to an individual’s vehicle, and subsequent use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements on public streets, constitutes a search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment,” the judgment reads. Their decision – after extensive hearings - was, at core, "Yes".

The case reviewed by the Supremes revolved around Antoine Jones, a nightclub owner the police linked with the drug trade, and the decision to follow his car’s movements using a GPS tracking system. The police obtained a court order for the use of such a device, but were a day late in installing it. The data it obtained was then used to link Jones to a house containing $850,000 in cash, 97kg of cocaine, and a kilo of cocaine base.

Despite the unanimous ruling, the court split 5-4 as to the reasons for rejecting the case. Justices Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, and Sotomayor ruled that the case fell on the government’s claim that it had the right to bug someone’s personal property without a court warrant. But the other four judges – Alito, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan – ruled that the case wasn't based around the use of private property, but on the rights of the individual to a reasonable amount of privacy.

"This is an important ruling for all Americans," said Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a statement. "The Supreme Court has unanimously confirmed that the Constitution prevents unbridled police use of new technologies to monitor our movements." ®

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