Unanimous Supreme Court Rules GPS Tracking Constitutes A Search, Probably Needs A Warrant

According to Wired, in a rare case of unanimity on a privacy matter, the US Supreme Court ruled (PDF) that police placement of a GPS device on someone’s car is equivalent to a fourth ammendment search:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. (4th Ammendment to the US Constitution)

The majority opinion, written by Justice Scalia, more or less said that the government was using an electronic spy to do the searching. Just because they didn’t have an actual person rifling through the car, doesn’t mean it’s not a search, because “the government obtains information by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area.”


The US Supreme Court in 2009. Scalia is second from the right, on the bottom. John Roberts is left of him.


The one thing the Supreme Court wasn’t unanimous on, was the point at which a warrant is required for such a search. The specific case they were hearing was of a D.C. drug dealer that was tracked by the FBI, via a GPS device on his car, for 28 days. All nine justices agreed that for tracking someone for that length of time, the feds had needed a warrant. As to the the maximum period the police could track someone without a warrant, five of the justices stayed silent; the other four said that to avoid ambiguity, they should always just seek a warrant.

The case probably went south for the Obama administration when Chief Justice Roberts asked their lawyer if the FBI could attach GPS trackers to the justices’ cars, secretly and without a warrant:

So your answer is, ‘yes,’ you could tomorrow decide that you put a GPS device on every one of our cars, follow us for a month; no problem under the Constitution?

For that, and other details of the deliberations back in November of 2011, check out the Wired article from back then.

From The US Supreme Court (PDF), Via Wired


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