Prosecutors with the U.S. Justice Department argued Thursday that the government is permitted to place Global Positioning System tracking devices on vehicles without the prior receipt of a search warrant, an argument that seems to contravene a January Supreme Court ruling that the installation of a GPS device without a warrant is a violation of the U.S. constitution’s prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
According to the Wall Street Journal
, Government prosecutors arguing their case before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals “relied on the fact that the high court didn’t specifically state that a search warrant would be required in other situations.”
In U.S. v. Jones, the court’s majority ruled that warrantless GPS tracking device installation constituted a trespass onto an individual’s property. But the high court did not adjudicate another government argument, which held that GPS tracking is a reasonable search that could be accomplished by other means — physically following a suspect’s car, for example — and therefore did not require a warrant.
If the distinction strikes you as a tenuous one, you are not alone. One legal scholar described the government’s argument as a violation of “the spirit, if not the letter, of the Jones decision.”
Other legal analysts, however, have identified several situations in which a search may be conducted without a warrant, including searches at border crossings and in public schools, and speculated that the government could credibly present GPS tracking as another reasonable exception to the search-warrant requirement.
In its argument to the Ninth Circuit, the government argued that “requiring a warrant and probable cause would seriously impede the government’s ability to investigate drug trafficking, terrorism, and other crimes.”
To some, that’s a risk worth taking. In an amicus brief filed at the Ninth Circuit, the American Civil Liberties Union warned, “Without a warrant requirement, the low cost of GPS tracking and data storage would permit the police to continuously track every driver.”
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