In a unanimous show of strength, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 yesterday in US v. Jones that police cannot surreptitiously track an individual for a month in their private car without a search warrant. The court announced that police monitoring in the modern age, by GPS tracking, amounts to a search and the month long surveillance in this case required a warrant to be valid. Without this necessary warrant, the police violated the Fourth Amendment protections afforded by the Constitution.
David Savage reports in the Los Angeles Times, "Even the justices who most often side with prosecutors rejected the government's view that Americans driving on public streets have waived their right to privacy and can be tracked and monitored at will. At least five justices appeared inclined, in the future, to go considerably beyond the physical intrusion involved in putting a GPS device on a car and rule that almost any long-term monitoring with a technological device could violate an individual's right to privacy."
"I would guess every U.S. attorney's office in the country will be having a meeting to sort out what this means for their ongoing investigations," said Lior Strahilevitz, a University of Chicago expert on privacy and technology.
Robert Barnes of the Washington Post reports, "The court rejected the government’s view that long-term surveillance of a suspect by GPS tracking is no different than traditional, low-tech forms of monitoring. But its decision was nuanced and incremental, leaving open the larger questions of how government may use the information generated by modern technology for surveillance purposes."
Jennifer Geiger of the Chicago Tribune writes, "At the center of the case is suspected narcotics trafficker and D.C. nightclub owner Antoine Jones, who was busted for possession of cocaine and firearms after police secretly tracked him by attaching a GPS unit to his car. The police got a warrant authorizing them to install the GPS unit on the suspect's Jeep Grand Cherokee. However, problems arose because of how the warrant was used. Police had 10 days to mount the device on the car, but didn't do it until day 11. The monitoring was also supposed to be done while in D.C., but the suspect was followed across state lines to Maryland."
The GPS monitoring occurred without a warrant and outside the jurisdiction.
What the Court did not decide is whether a less intrusive measure, say surveillance without a warrant for a few days would be a violation of the law. That will be the stuff of future cases as courts will wrestle with the boundary of privacy in this age of constant camera surveillance--bank machines, toll roads, parking lots, wireless cell towers, phone GPS systems, and even to cars that track their own whereabouts round the clock. This mountain of information that many people think to be private is often available to easy government access and the spot where privacy concerns are tipped is still an open question.