Police should need warrants for GPS vehicle tracking

By Luke Wilusz

The U.S. Justice Department is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to grant it the right to attach GPS tracking devices to suspects’ cars without warrants. The request is part of an appeal of an August 2010 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., circuit.

The court overturned the 1983 conviction and life sentence of a cocaine dealer based on the lack of police warrants for a tracking device in his vehicle. Three other circuit courts of appeals have currently upheld authorities’ right to warrantless GPS tracking. The Supreme Court has not indicated whether it intends to hear the government’s petition on this matter.

According to a brief filed with the Supreme Court on April 15, the Justice Department claims “a person has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another.” In other words, monitoring people’s movements isn’t an invasion of privacy because they travel from place to place in public.

It’s a compelling argument. Law enforcement officials can already follow suspects to observe their movements, and GPS tracking would, theoretically, be a technological extension of those kinds of procedures. However, such blind GPS tracking could complicate investigations and potentially make the evidence obtained by police inadmissible in court.

For example, the trackers would let officers know where a suspect’s vehicle is at all times, but they would not be able to identify the driver. This could create reasonable doubt that might get a criminal off the hook on a technicality. Even if police were allowed to use such GPS tracking, they would need to supplement that evidence with something that could verify the identity of a vehicle’s driver.

Furthermore, while it may be true that people have no right to privacy when moving about in public, their vehicles count as private property. Attaching trackers to a person’s car could be a violation of the Fourth Amendment. American citizens’ homes and property are constitutionally protected against unlawful access by

the government.

In that sense, physically attaching the trackers to vehicles should require a warrant, even if the monitoring doesn’t. Law enforcement has every right to utilize the latest technological advances to make the apprehension of criminals easier and more efficient. However, these modern means of investigation should be bound by the same rules of law and due process that have governed our country’s legal system for centuries.

There’s no reason why a warrant shouldn’t be required for such operations. If law enforcement officials are going to spend extended periods of time—entire weeks or months at a stretch—observing a suspect’s movements, getting approval from a judge shouldn’t be such a terrible inconvenience. GPS tracking would be too time-consuming to be viable if police had to apprehend a suspect quickly, so waiting for a tracking warrant shouldn’t be an issue.

Conducting investigations by the book ensures the accused’s rights are respected the way the Bill of Rights intended them to be. It also protects police against accusations of wrongdoing or technical quibbles that could derail important criminal trials.

If the U.S. Supreme Court does choose to hear the Justice Department’s petition, it should consider a balance between civilians’ rights and law enforcement’s need to use the tools at its disposal to do its job. The justices should keep the Fourth Amendment in mind when making their decision and uphold the need for court-issued warrants if law enforcement officials want to use GPS tracking on suspects’ vehicles.

Requiring warrants for every police action that could constitute an invasion of privacy is a common sense way to ensure that the legal process operates ethically

and fairly.