Supreme Court Search and Seizure Ruling In Use of GPS

David Lindsey, Attorney at Law

By David Lindsey Attorney of David Lindsey, Attorney at Law posted in Search and Seizure on Monday, March 5, 2012.

In a landmark ruling regarding privacy rights and search and seizure, the Supreme Court of the United States has suggested that law enforcement get a warrant before physically attaching GPS monitoring devices to a suspect’s vehicle. While the ruling was unanimous that police had violated the suspect’s Constitutional rights, the rationale for that decision divided the Justices.

The majority opinion held that the placement of the device on private property constituted the violation, thereby avoiding the more profound questions raised by the development of new technologies that our Founding Fathers couldn’t have foreseen.

“We hold that the government’s installation of a G.P.S. device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,’ ” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor joined the majority opinion.

“It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case,” Justice Scalia went on. “The government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.”

Justice Samuel Alito, writing in a concurrence for Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan, took exception with the majority’s attempts to apply 18th century legal concepts to 21st century technologies.

“The use of longer term G.P.S. monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy. We need not identify with precision the point at which the tracking of this vehicle became a search, for the line was surely crossed before the 4-week mark,” Justice Alito wrote. “Other cases may present more difficult questions.”

Justice Sotomayor, who joined the majority opinion, indicates that she would have joined Alito’s instead had he addressed more than the private property issue raised in this case. Her opinion hints at the broader questions of privacy and search and seizure that the court will likely face in the future. “It may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties. People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers; the URLs that they visit and the e-mail addresses with which they correspond to their Internet service providers; and the books, groceries, and medications they purchase to online retailers,” she wrote. “I for one doubt that people would accept without complaint the warrantless disclosure to the government of a list of every Web site they had visited in the last week, or month, or year.”

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