In late January, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled to restrict law enforcement’s ability to use GPS tracking devices to follow the whereabouts of those suspected of crimes. The case represented an early test of the right-to-privacy in light of developing tracking technology.
The decision sent the defendant, who had been accused of drug crimes, back to the lower federal courts, and was called a “landmark ruling in applying the Fourth Amendment’s protections to advances in surveillance technology” by one of the defense attorneys.
The prosecution tried to convince the high court that police monitoring by GPS is the same as more traditional, simplified forms of surveillance, like physically following a suspect in an unmarked cruiser.
But the justices disagreed, although they left open other broader related questions regarding monitoring.
Justice Antonin Scalia explained that the defendant’s constitutionally-protected right against an unreasonable search was violated when agents physically installed the electronic tracking unit to the defendant’s vehicle and watched his activity for 28 days throughout the Maryland and Washington, D.C. area.
“We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,’” said Scalia.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said that “the use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy.”
And in her own concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed with Alito and expressed apprehension over the loss of personal privacy in a case like this.