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No police GPS tracking without a warrant, Supreme Court says

Posted by Brian Tillman on 23 January 2012

Aaaaaah, you should get up in the morning and take a deep breath of that FREEDOM that the Supremes just dished out today!! It’s hard to recall the last time that this Court (the same one that says corporations are “people”) ruled unanimously in favor of civil liberty instead of some institution, in this case, law enforcement. That’s right, all NINE of them. Of course they didn’t all agree for the same reason, but they dovetailed into unison where it counted. My married readers will understand.

For a brief history on this case (we did a blog post on it here in order to set up the follow up article you are now enjoying), it centered around a man whom the police believed was dealing drugs. They were very suspicious, but not sure enough to go ask a judge for a warrant to put a GPS tracker on the car, which is what they really wanted. So they did it anyway (note: that’s the COPS, not your angry teenager). And they left it for a while, tracking the owner’s travel routes, stops, and destinations. And then a while longer, for four weeks. So the million dollar qusetion was whether or not the government secretly planting a GPS on someone’s car and tracking their whereabouts for four weeks was an unreasonable search.

Fortunately for ALL of us the Court unanimously agreed that it surely was an unreasonable search under the facts presented. Five iustices thought the act of physically attaching the GPS on the car was an invasion of physical property rights by the government. The other four agreed in the end judgment but instead focused on the driver’s expectation of privacy as the heart of the case, that monitoring a person’s every move for four weeks with a device was excessive. That’s a highly simplified version of the full picture of who agreed on what isssues, and the issues themselves, but you can get the point. You can read the whole opinion here if you need that kind of detail, like which camp Scalia was in, you know…

OK now go ahead and exhale that big breath of freedom from earlier. Also stop reading now if you love magic and jelly beans. Because while the opinion tells you that the Supreme Court (some of them) don’t want the government attaching new equipment on your car (which I appreciate, don’t get me wrong), it does not tell you what they think about being tracked with stuff you may already have on you, like your cell phone, IPAD, or your NorthStar system. And while it’s good that monitoring someone for four weeks is clearly excessive, they specifically declined to say just how long was too long. So how about two weeks? In reality, it doesn’t give a lot of guidance about where the Court would fall under any other circumstances at all. Can’t wait until I get a client with exactly that fact scenario, boy I will knock that one out of the park!

If you’re still intrigued, you can check out a reader-friendly article on the case from USA Today.

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