Conflicting court rulings regarding whether the US government and state police agencies are allowed to track individuals using GPS equipment without a warrant are now colliding, and the final conclusion is to be decided by the US Supreme Court.
Although the technology/privacy debate has been raging since the tapping of a telephone booth was addressed in Katz v. United States in 1965, the US Courts of Appeals for the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Circuits have all recently kicked the GPS hornet’s nest by upholding rulings allowing the use of GPS tracking evidence in criminal cases.
Although differing in detail, all of these cases involved state or federal agents surreptitiously placing GPS tracking devices on vehicles and using the resulting evidence to gain convictions. None of these courts, however, were to have the last word. A 2010 ruling from the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit broke away from other circuit court findings in a similar case, stating that the US government sought to obtain too much information and violated the defendant’s right to a reasonable expectation of privacy.
United States v. Jones has been appealed to the Supreme Court by the US Justice Department and is being called the most important Fourth Amendment case in the past decade. Justice Department officials argue that prompt resolution of the issue is imperative so that law enforcement agencies across the nation can have official guidance regarding the legality of GPS tracking.
The Supreme Court case is scheduled to be held in November, but concerned advocates are already weighing in. The Constitution Project, a Washington think tank staffed by former members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Agency, is proposing that limits be set on the use of GPS systems and other technologies by law enforcement agencies to track citizens without a warrant.
In seeming contravention of civil liberties policies, the White House is prepared to argue that warrants limit the ability for law enforcement agencies’ abilities to keep ahead of criminal and terrorist activity, and that a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy is reduced to zero when traveling on public roadways.
Privacy advocates are quick to point out, however, that the impending Supreme Court ruling resides on the very edge of a slippery Orwellian slope, considering that tracking cell phones and other personal devices would be the next legislative evolutionary step, and would be hard not to defend if warrantless GPS tracking is made legal.