Supreme Court Rules Against GPS Tracking Without Warrants

BY CCIA Staff
January 23, 2012
The Supreme Court today issued an opinion in the case of United States v. Jones, concerning whether the police needed a warrant before they placed a GPS tracking device on the underside of a suspect’s car. In a unanimous decision, the Court upheld the DC Circuit’s opinion holding that the police should have had a valid warrant, but gave a different rationale.
CCIA is glad to see the Court uphold the important idea of location privacy, however we would rather have seen the majority opinion deal with the inherent questions of location tracking, rather than the particulars of physical trespass. We are happy to see, however, that at least five of the Justices were interested in taking a broader view, and found at least some privacy right in locational data, regardless of how it was collected.
Justice Scalia, writing for the court, based his rationale entirely on the fact of a physical trespass. Police were required to physically place the GPS device on the car itself before it could track the defendant, and that trespass, held the court, created a search under the Fourth Amendment which must have an accompanying warrant. The problem with this narrow argument is that it does not answer the broader question. GPS device tracking is an investigatory technique that is already falling by the wayside. Tracking of cell phones is becoming much more common and carries with it no requirement for the police to trespass to begin the tracking.
For that reason, we are encouraged to see a majority of the court embrace a broader standard. Justice Alito, writing for himself along with Justices Ginsburg, Bryer, and Kagan, argued convincingly that there is a Fourth Amendment privacy interest in location information, in at least some circumstances. This is the right approach, although a bright line test that included all electronically enhanced location tracking would be a more easily workable solution. Justice Sotomayor joined Justice Scalia’s opinion for the majority, but also wrote separately to say that she also agreed with the rationale outlined by Justice Alito.
We hope the lower courts will take this into consideration and begin expecting warrants even in cases where location tracking is done without physical trespass. At the same time, Congress is in a perfect situation to expand on this decision. There is now a baseline of protection, but the legislature should step up and fill in the details.

Related Articles

Supreme Court Pauses Texas Social Media Law Ahead Of Lower Court Reviewing Constitutional Concerns

May 31, 2022

Washington – The Supreme Court has issued an emergency ruling temporarily blocking HB 20, the Texas social media law, from being enforced while a lower court resolves a preliminary First Amendment challenge to the statute.  The Computer & Communications Industry Association and NetChoice jointly filed an emergency brief Friday, May 13, asking the U.S. Supreme…

CCIA Welcomes Support From Diverse Group of 38 Organizations and Experts in Continued Effort to Halt Unconstitutional Texas Social Media Law

May 18, 2022

Washington – Just five days after the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) and NetChoice filed an emergency brief asking the Supreme Court to act immediately against an unconstitutional Texas social media law, a diverse group of 38 organizations and individuals filed a series of “friend of the court” briefs in support of the associations’…

CCIA Files Emergency Brief Asking Supreme Court To Halt Texas Social Media Law

May 13, 2022

Washington – The Computer & Communications Industry Association jointly filed an emergency brief Friday asking the U.S. Supreme Court for immediate action to prevent an unconstitutional Texas social media law from going into effect. The joint filing, submitted with co-plaintiff NetChoice, asks the Court to reinstate a lower court’s decision blocking enforcement of the Texas…