Supreme Court rules warrantless GPS tracking by police is unconstitutional

In a major win for privacy advocates, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that police officers must obtain a warrant before tracking a suspect’s car with a GPS device. 

The court ruled unanimously that police in Washington, D.C., violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures when they placed a GPS device on the car of a criminal suspect without a valid warrant.

"It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case: The government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the opinion of the court. "We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a 'search' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted."

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The case, U.S. v. Jones, involved a nightclub owner, Antoine Jones, who was suspected of trafficking cocaine. Police obtained a warrant to track Jones's car, but did not install the GPS device until the day after the warrant expired. Despite not having a valid warrant, police tracked Jones's Jeep Cherokee for more than four weeks.  

Based on the evidence obtained from the GPS device, a court convicted Jones and sentenced him to life in prison.

Civil liberties advocates cheered the high court’s ruling as an “important victory for privacy.” 

"A majority of the Court acknowledged that advancing technology, like cell phone tracking, gives the government unprecedented ability to collect, store, and analyze an enormous amount of information about our private lives,” Steven Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “Today's decision suggests that the Court is prepared to address that problem. Congress needs to address the problem as well.”

In the ruling, Scalia focused on the act of installing the GPS device on Jones's car, rather than the tracking of his movements. He chose not to rely on the 1967 decision U.S. v. Katz, in which the court ruled that the Fourth Amendment protects people from government snooping when they have a "reasonable expectation of privacy."

Lawyers for the Obama administration had argued that Jones had no expectation of privacy when he was driving on public streets.

Scalia decided that the act of installing a GPS device would have constituted an unconstitutional "trespass" at the time that the Fourth Amendment was adopted. He wrote that the Katz decision added to, rather than replaced, the original common law understanding of the Fourth Amendment, and it was therefore unnecessary for him to address the government's arguments about whether Jones had an expectation of privacy on public streets.

In a separate opinion, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, disagreed with Scalia's reasoning but agreed with the decision. Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed her own opinion in which she agreed with both the majority's reasoning and decision.

In the concurring opinion, Alito called Scalia's reasoning "unwise" and "artificial." 

"This case requires us to apply the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures to a 21st century surveillance technique," Alito wrote. "Ironically, the Court has chosen to decide this case based on 18th century tort law."

He argued it would be impossible to think of 18th century situations that would be analogous to GPS tracking.

"Is it possible to imagine a case in which a constable secreted himself somewhere in a coach and remained there for a period of time in order to monitor the movement's of the coach's owner?" Alito asked rhetorically.

Instead, the court should have ruled that tracking suspects' every movement for weeks on end would violate their expectation to privacy under the Katz decision, Alito argued.

He said that by focusing on the act of installing the GPS device rather than the weeks of tracking, the court "attached great significance to something that most would view as relatively minor."

Sotomayor agreed with Scalia's reasoning, but in a separate opinion, she worried that by focusing on the act of installing a GPS device, the court left open the door to other forms of electronic spying.

"With increasing regularity, the Government will be capable of duplicating the monitoring undertaken in this case by enlisting factory- or owner-installed vehicle tracking devices or GPS-enabled smartphones," Sotomayor wrote.

— This story was updated at 1:36 p.m.