June 27, 2011 | By Marcia Hofmann

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Key Warrantless GPS Tracking Case

In a move that could have a profound impact on Fourth Amendment law, the Supreme Court has agreed to consider a question that has split the nation's appeals courts: can the police install and use a GPS tracking device to follow a person's movements around the clock every day for a month—without a search warrant?

The Supreme Court granted certiorari (pdf) today in United States v. Jones (once known as United States v. Maynard). In this case, FBI agents planted a GPS device on Antoine Jones' car while it was on private property and tracked the location of the vehicle for a full month without a warrant. Jones challenged the surveillance tactic, arguing that it violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled last summer that the government's prolonged use of the device to track Jones' car required a search warrant based on probable cause, noting, "When it comes to privacy . . . the whole may be more revealing than the parts." The court went on to explain:

It is one thing for a passerby to observe or even to follow someone during a single journey as he goes to the market or returns home from work. It is another thing entirely for that stranger to pick up the scent again the next day and the day after that, week in and week out, dogging his prey until he has identified all the places, people, amusements, and chores that make up that person's hitherto private routine.

EFF and the ACLU of the National Capital Area partnered on an amicus brief (pdf) in the D.C. Circuit, arguing that warrantless GPS surveillance would open the door for police to abuse their authority and continuously track anyone's physical location for any reason—without ever having to show a judge that such monitoring is justified.

Other appeals courts have grappled with the question of warrantless GPS tracking, deciding under other circumstances that such surveillance is constitutional.

In Jones, the Supreme Court will review two specific questions:

  1. Whether the warrantless use of a tracking device on Jones' vehicle to monitor its movements on public streets violated the Fourth Amendment, and
  2. Whether the government violated Jones' Fourth Amendment rights by installing the GPS tracking device on his vehicle without a valid warrant and without his consent.

EFF will continue to be involved as the Supreme Court weighs this important case. Stay tuned...


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