The Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments today about whether or not authorities need a warrant to use GPS tracking devices on alleged suspect cars. This comes after alleged dug kingpin Antoine Jones was arrested when the FBI found 97 kilos of cocaine and $850,000 at a stash house. The FBI put a tracking device on Jones’ car after wire-tapping proved useless. He was convicted to life imprisonment before the Federal Appeals Court overturned the decision.
“It’s critical to understand that this case is not about whether law enforcement can use GPS devices. It’s about whether they should get a warrant,” says lawyer Walter Dellinger, who represents Antoine Jones.
What are the implications? If the Supreme Court rules that law enforcement does not need a warrant before using GPS tracking, then “no one would be immune from having a GPS device installed on their vehicles,” Dellinger says. Any person could be tracked while on public property at the law enforcer’s whim.
The Justice Department says the GPS device is no different from a beeper authorities used in 1983, to help track a suspect to his drug lab. The Supreme Court said then that people on public roads have no reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, it is illegal for law enforcement to go through a suspect’s trash on his property– in his yard or in his home. But it is not illegal to go through a suspect’s trash if it is put on the curbside. There is no Fourth Amendment protection on public space.
So why not get a warrant first? Because to get a warrant, police have to show they have probable cause to believe a crime is occurring or has occurred. And the government says GPS tracking is particularly useful at the early stages of an investigation — before probable cause can be established.
“You have a lead against a person, but it’s not corroborated,” says Rowan. “You don’t know what they’re up to. This is a low-cost device that would allow the FBI or any law enforcement agency to gather a great deal of information about their movements without having to go to a judge and justify their investigation.”