Can Police Use GPS to Track My Vehicle Without a Warrant?

warrant, privacy, your rights, GPS, Illinois criminal defense lawyerGPTechnology makes police surveillance much easier and, consequently, personal privacy much more difficult to retain. Courts struggle to define the scope of personal privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Even the United States Supreme Court is divided on the issue, leaving lower federal courts to struggle with the implications of increased police monitoring.

United States v. Jones

In the 2012 case United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court held that police must obtain a warrant when attaching a Global-Positioning-System (GPS) tracking device to a vehicle. Federal and state police agencies commonly use such devices to monitor criminal suspects. All nine justices of the Court agreed this constituted a “search or seizure” requiring a warrant under the Fourth Amendment.

But the justices disagreed on their reasoning. Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the Court’s principal opinion, said it was a question of property rights. Since the FBI had to physically attach a GPS device to a suspect’s car, that constituted a form of trespass, which under a historical reading of the Fourth Amendment required a warrant. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Samuel Alito wrote separately to emphasize their broader concerns over privacy. Justice Alito’s opinion, which was joined by three other justices, said the “trespass” issue was “relatively minor” and the real problem was the government’s “use of a GPS for the purpose of long-term tracking.” Such surveillance should require a warrant, Justice Alito said, even if there was no physical trespass like attaching a GPS device.

United States v. Brown

On March 4th of this year, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago addressed a case arising from the Supreme Court’s fractured decision in Jones. Like Jones, this case involved the use of a GPS device to track a vehicle. A key difference was that the vehicle’s owner consented to the police’s action. Police tracked the vehicle and arrested the driver, who was not the owner, for cocaine possession. The driver then testified against another person, Henry R. Brown, who was subsequently charged with drug trafficking, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.

Brown appealed his conviction, alleging there was an illegal search when the police tracked his car using the GPS device without first obtaining a warrant. The 7th Circuit rejected this argument. The “search” in this case took place before the Supreme Court’s decision in Jones. Prior to that decision, the rule in the 7th Circuit was that the use of GPS devices were not subject to any Fourth Amendment warrant requirements. The appeals judges said Jones did not apply retroactively.

An Unsettled Issue

The 7th Circuit’s decision left unsettled the question of whether police need a warrant to engage in long-term tracking of a vehicle when there’s no physical trespass. Future criminal cases will no doubt test the courts on this subject. That’s why if you or someone you know faces federal drug charges it is essential you work with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Hal M. Garfinkel LLC, Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney today if you have any questions.

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