This fall, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in U.S. v. Jones, a case where modern technology meets the guarantee against “unreasonable search and seizure” in the 4th Amendment. Specifically, the case raises the question: Do police need a warrant to install a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car and monitor his behavior?
While some courts have applied the protections of the 4th Amendment to cases involving e-mail and cell phone use, the Supreme Court has yet to consider the implications of the police using common and current technology like GPS tracking. In fact, two of the most recent precedents for this case are Kyllo v. U.S. (which held that police cannot use a thermal imaging device to “search” a suspect’s house without a warrant) and U.S. v. Knotts(a 1983 case dealing with police use of beepers).
The D.C. Court of Appeals held in this case that police must obtain a warrant before attaching a GPS device to the suspects car and tracking his movement for weeks at a time. Other district courts, however, have held that GPS tracking is no different than the permissible practice of a police “shadow surveillance,” which involves officers staking out and tailing a suspect. These judges reason that the GPS simply allows the officer to tail an individual more efficiently, and therefore, can be done without a warrant.
The New York Times is calling U.S. v. Jones “the most important Fourth Amendment case in a decade,” and certainly the Supreme Court’s holding may have widespread effects on the ability of law enforcement to use GPS and other modern technology for the surveillance of individuals.