Skip to main content

Supreme Court Ruling: GPS Tracking Requires Warrant

On Monday the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that in most cases, police, private investigators, and anyone else in need of tracking someone via GPS must acquire a probable-cause warrant before attaching a stand-alone GPS device to a vehicle they do not own. Attaching a GPS device and tracking the target without the warrant is now deemed illegal under the 4th Amendment.

The ruling goes against the Obama administration's position which claims that attaching a GPS device to a vehicle was not a search. The administration even said that it could attach a GPS device to all nine members og the Supreme Court without a warrant. But the majority of the justices disagreed, ruling that such an action does in fact constitute as a search, especially over a long period of time.

The ruling stems from a case involving a District of Columbia drug dealer who was tracked for a month via a GPS device without a warrant. The long-term tracking was deemed legal at the time he was sentenced, but the Supreme Court saw this as "unreasonable" and tossed out the man's life sentencing. The Justice Department argued that it had probable cause, but admitted it didn't acquire a proper warrant.

According to the court papers, the Justice Department actually landed a warrant to install the GPS device in the District of Columbia and within 10 days. Instead, the agents installed the device on the 11th day while in Maryland. The GPS data was used against him only in instances when the vehicle was on public streets. Essentially the Justice Department screwed up and convicted a man using evidence obtained by warrantless use of the GPS device.

"The Fourth Amendment protects the 'right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,'" reads the court ruling. "Here, the Government’s physical intrusion on an 'effect' for the purpose of obtaining information constitutes a 'search.' This type of encroachment on an area enumerated in the Amendment would have been considered a search within the meaning of the Amendment at the time it was adopted."

But what does that mean for GPS-enabled devices like smartphones, tablets, laptops and even automobiles? Can officials still track these devices without a warrant? Walter Dellinger, the lawyer appealing the drug dealer's conviction, said the decision means that "almost any use of GPS electronic surveillance of a citizen’s movement will be legally questionable unless a warrant is obtained in advance."

To read the full scoop, download the PDF file from the Supreme Court's website here.