High court: Warrant needed for GPS tracking of suspects

Police nationwide must get a search warrant before using GPS technology to track criminal suspects,

Police nationwide must get a search warrant before using GPS technology to track criminal suspects, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The ruling is based on a Washington, D.C., case that mirrors a New York case from 2009. In that case, New York’s highest court also ruled that a search warrant is necessary for using GPS technology.

Nonetheless, the federal ruling was hailed Monday by local defense attorney Terence Kindlon, who called it a decision that will have a major impact nationwide on how police conduct their investigations.

“Especially interesting is the reaffirmation of the right to privacy in an era where the right to privacy seems to have less significance than it’s had in the last 50 years,” Kindlon said.

In the federal case, a GPS device installed by police on Washington, D.C., nightclub owner Antoine Jones’ Jeep helped them link him to a suburban house used to stash money and drugs. He was sentenced to life in prison before the appeals court overturned the conviction.

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said that the government’s installation of a GPS device, and its use to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a search, meaning that a warrant is required.

Such devices “encroach on a protected area,” Scalia wrote, making it a trespass and illegal search.

All nine justices agreed that the GPS monitoring on the Jeep violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Scalia wrote the main opinion of three in the case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote one of the two concurring opinions that agreed with the outcome in the Jones case for different reasons.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote, in the other concurring opinion, that the trespass was not as important as the suspect’s expectation of privacy and that the long-term duration of the surveillance impinged on that expectation of privacy. Police monitored the Jeep’s movements over the course of four weeks after attaching the GPS device.

Regarding the issue of duration, Scalia wrote that “we may have to grapple” with those issues in the future, “but there is no reason for rushing forward to resolve them here.”

In the May 2009 New York case requiring warrants for such uses, the Court of Appeals found in a 4-3 decision that search warrants were required.

That case was based on one out of Albany County from 2005, where suspect Scott Weaver was convicted on a burglary charge based in part on GPS data.

GPS, though, had been used in several local cases to that point, sometimes with warrants and sometimes without. Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney on Monday said he had yet to read the Supreme Court decision, but he said the law enforcement argument has generally been that the devices result in the same information that investigators could get through labor-intensive trailing of suspects themselves.

Melanie Trimble, executive director of the Capital Region chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, cited another ongoing local case, that of fired state worker Michael Cunningham.

The state’s highest court is set to hear arguments later this year on whether Cunningham’s constitutional privacy rights were violated when the state Labor Department, where Cunningham was director of staff and organizational development for 20 years, put a GPS tracker on Cunningham’s personal car because Cunningham was disciplined previously for false time records and officials suspected it was continuing. Cunningham lost in the state’s Appellate Division.

The U.S. Supreme Court case “affirms our argument that the Department of Labor was wrong in placing a GPS device on Mr. Cunningham’s personal car,” Trimble said in a statement. “The warrantless use of the device was an invasion of Mr. Cunningham’s privacy and his family’s privacy.”

The issue, though, is to be decided by the Court of Appeals.

Categories: Schenectady County

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