Police GPS Device Use Triggers Privacy Clash at U.S. High Court

For a month in 2005, police in Washington tracked Antoine Jones’s every move -- or at least those he made in his Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Using a GPS device authorities had secretly attached to the vehicle, investigators in the nation’s capital were able to tie him to a suspected drug stash house. Jones was eventually arrested and convicted in federal court of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, raising far-reaching questions about privacy in an age when technology gives police unprecedented power to peer into Americans’ day-to-day activities with cameras, computers and tracking devices. In arguments tomorrow, the justices will consider whether police need a search warrant before using a global-positioning system device to monitor a suspect for weeks at a time.

“It’s very important because the police have begun to use technology in all sorts of investigations for all sorts of purposes,” said Chris Slobogin, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, Tennessee, who has written a book on the legal implications of the high-tech government surveillance methods.

The case is before the court as lawmakers and privacy advocates are raising concerns that companies are collecting personal data from electronic devices, including mobile phones and tablet computers, for marketing purposes.

Apple Data

In recent months, Apple Inc. has denied allegations that it tracks the location of iPhone and iPad users, General Motors Co.’s OnStar vehicle-navigation service has promised not to collect data on the driving habits of former customers and Facebook Inc. has faced accusations that it tracks users’ Internet browsing after they log out of the social-networking site.

The high court case doesn’t directly affect those private-sector controversies and instead focuses on the limits placed on the government by the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Supreme Court in 1983 upheld the use of a beeper placed on a car to track a suspect during a single trip. The newest question is whether police need a warrant to use GPS devices continuously over longer periods. Lower courts are divided on the issue, with the federal appeals court in Jones’s case overturning his conviction.

Privacy advocates say a ruling in favor of the police would open a dangerous new chapter in government surveillance of ordinary citizens. Unlike with the beeper, which required an officer to follow the suspect’s car to pick up the signals being emitted, GPS devices allow monitoring with very little police effort, says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

‘More Effective’

“With GPS tracking, you can have a computer monitor with 100 cars under surveillance being viewed by a single officer with a cup of coffee,” said Rotenberg, whose group is siding with Jones in the case. “That can’t be permissible.”

The efficiency of GPS tracking is also an argument in its favor, said Anthony Barkow, executive director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at New York University School of Law. His office filed a brief urging the court to rule that officers didn’t need a warrant in the Jones case.

GPS tracking “is both less costly and more effective” than other investigation methods, said Barkow, a former federal prosecutor. The case “has tremendous implications in a world of limited budgets and budget crises.”

Easier Tracking

Tracking may become even easier as more vehicles come pre-equipped with GPS technology. In the Jones case, officers not only had to attach the device to the vehicle, they had to return to replace the battery.

Jones, now 51, was a Maryland resident who owned a nightclub in Washington where prosecutors say he ran a narcotics trafficking organization. The GPS device, placed in the car while it was in a Maryland parking lot, was one facet of an investigation by local and federal authorities that also included visual surveillance and a wiretap on Jones’s mobile phone. Jones is serving a life sentence.

The Obama administration is urging the high court not to require a warrant for GPS use, calling it a “minimally intrusive” step that yields important results in drug and terrorism cases. To obtain a warrant, officers must show a judge that they have “probable cause” to believe the search will lead to evidence of a crime.

“GPS surveillance is a critically important law enforcement tool that often may be most important in the inception of an investigation when probable cause is lacking,” argued U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the administration’s top Supreme Court advocate.

Traditional Investigation

The government also argues that GPS tracking provides no more information than what police could have obtained through more traditional means.

“If they had unlimited resources, they would have been able to accomplish the same thing,” Barkow said. “It shouldn’t be unconstitutional just because they’re doing it with a device.”

In a 1967 case, the Supreme Court said the Fourth Amendment doesn’t shield information that a person “knowingly exposes to the public.”

Jones’s lawyers say GPS devices can show a pattern of movement that officers might not detect through visual observation. In throwing out the conviction, a federal appeals court in Washington agreed with that reasoning.

“The whole of one’s movements over the course of a month” indicates “far more than the individual movements it comprises,” the panel ruled. “The difference is not one of degree but of kind, for no single journey reveals the habits and patterns that mark the distinction between a day in the life and a way of life.”

The case is United States v. Jones, 10-1259.

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