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Warrant Required for GPS Tracking, Court Rules

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The next time the police think about slapping a GPS tracking device on your car, they may be required to have a search warrant in their hands beforehand. In an opinion issued Friday, a D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals determined that unwarranted and prolonged GPS surveillance violates constitutionally mandated protections against unreasonable searches.

Federal prosecutors used evidence from GPS tracking devices to convict two D.C.-area nightclub owners, Antoine Jones and Lawrence Maynard, on narcotics charges. The government had argued that the suspects should never have had a reasonable expectation of privacy, since the GPS technology only tracked actions that the men committed in public. The three judge panel, however, saw things differently. "Society recognizes Jones's expectation of privacy in his movements over the course of a month as reasonable, and the use of the GPS device to monitor those movements defeated that reasonable expectation," the court wrote.

Arthur Spitzer of the D.C. ACLU, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of the court. "This case is really a big step toward bringing the Fourth Amendment into the 21st century," Spitzer says. "The technology of the 21st century needs to be judged on its own terms, and not in terms of what some early 20th-century technologies meant."

The Appeals Court's ruling may set an important precedent, but, as Ars Technica points out, legislation on GPS surveillance still varies across states. A Wisconsin court, for example, ruled in 2009 that warrantless GPS tracking didn't violate the Constitution, while a New York Court of Appeals decided otherwise. All signs are thus pointing to a showdown at the feet of the Supreme Court, which, as the Washington Post notes, hasn't ruled on a similar electronic surveillance case since 1983, during the age of beepers.

In that decision, the high court determined that unwarranted surveillance facilitated by beeper-like tracking devices was legal, since the targeted suspect drove on public roads, and thus had no expectation of privacy. In that particular case, though, the suspect was under watch for the duration of a single, one-way trip, and the Court never weighed in on the legality of longer monitoring. [From: Washington Post and ars technica]

Tags: constitution, ConstitutionalLaw, ConstitutionalRights, court, fbi, GPS, GpsTracking, police, privacy, search, SupremeCourt, surveillance, top