In Washington, D.C. on Monday, a big victory for privacy rights took place when the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Jones that the government violated the Fourth Amendment when police used a Global Positioning System (GPS) device on Antoine Jones’ car. The police tracked Jones’ whereabouts continuously for 28 days without a valid warrant in the criminal prosecution of Mr. Jones and Lawrence Maynard, two suspected cocaine dealers who ran a nightclub in Washington, D.C.
The Fourth Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, which allows people to be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures, unless a warrant is issued by the Court upon probable cause.
The police secured a search warrant to place a GPS unit on Jones’ car, with the specific requirement that the unit be installed within ten days in The District of Columbia. However, it was not installed until the 11th day, and it was done in Maryland, not in The District of Columbia, as specified. Therefore, the installation was completed without a warrant, which is Unconstitutional.
The court held that the car is an effect, and therefore the right to be secure requiring a warrant in order to attach a GPS search device. While it is permissible for the government to follow someone and track them or their vehicle’s movements on public streets, placing a device on their car, without a warrant, is a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, and not admissible as evidence against them. This was the first time in 20 years the Supreme Court has had to consider the constitutionality of location-tracking technology.
In the case of Jones, authorities in favor of GPS-tracking insisted that installing a small, physically non-invasive device while an automobile is parked in public property did not necessitate a warrant, citing that the installation would be conducted in public space and would only track a vehicle on public roads. Other forms of police surveillance done without a warrant would be the common practice of using remotely controlled aerial drones to monitor citizens. Why is it not required to obtain a warrant to use cell phones as tracking devices?
The answer is not so clear. The courts are being introduced to many new, never-before discussed issues when it comes to technology, as the world around us is constantly being shaped by the rapidly evolving technological world. America thrives on the separation of powers: three branches of government which have specified roles as expressed by the Constitution. The reason this case is interesting is because the Courts cannot create new laws, they can only rule on the laws already in place. Therefore, if it turns out that we believe the government should not need a warrant to place tracking devices on vehicles parked in public lots, we would need to have Congress (the legislative branch) pass a new law that permits this act.
And in the meantime, technology is still advancing.