In its first ever review of GPS tracking, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that police need a warrant before attaching a GPS device to a person’s car.
The opinion was unanimous, although the justices split in their views of how the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to such high-tech tracking.
The case, which during November oral arguments had prompted justices’ references to George Orwell‘s futuristic novel 1984 and to “Big Brother” government, ensures that police cannot use GPS to continuously track a suspect before presenting grounds and obtaining a warrant from a judge.
The court reversed the cocaine-trafficking conviction of a Washington, D.C., nightclub owner. In 2005, police secretly attached a GPS device to a Jeep owned by Antoine Jones while it was parked in a public lot. Agents then used evidence of Jones’ travels over four weeks to help win the conviction on conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
“The government’s physical intrusion on the Jeep for the purpose of obtaining information constitutes a search,” Justice Antonin Scalia said for the court as he read portions of his opinion from the bench Monday.
Scalia based his decision on the roots of the Fourth Amendment and wrote, “Where, as here, the government obtains information by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area, such a search has undoubtedly occurred.” He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor.
The four other justices, led by Samuel Alito, concurred only in the judgment for Jones. Alito said the case would be better analyzed by asking whether Jones’ “reasonable expectations of privacy were violated by the long-term monitoring of the movements of the vehicle he drove.”
Alito contended the attachment of the GPS device was not itself an illegal “search.” Rather, he argued, what matters is a driver’s expectation of privacy.