GPS Car Tracking and Search Warrants

Where are you? Who is tracking you, your car, your phone? Who did you give permission to track you? OnStar, BMW, Apple?  Can the government place a tracking device on your car without your permission and without a judicially approved search warrant?  That answer is now NO.

In a landmark decision, in UNITED STATES v. JONES, the United States Supreme Court has held that the Government cannot place a global positioning system (“GPS”) tracking device on any vehicle without first obtaining a search warrant.  The ruling was handed down in the context of the FBI introducing evidence of defendant’s travel history, places visited and people with whom he met, which information was gathered from the tracking device.  Thereafter, that information was contained in several affidavits of probable cause accompanying search warrants for the various locations that Defendant visited.  Significant amounts of drugs and money were found at the locations for which the warrants were obtained. The Defendant was ultimately convicted of drug distribution charges and sentenced to life in prison.

The court held that the placement of the GPS device on a target’s vehicle,and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a “search.”  It was a search, the court held, because the automobile is an effect of personal property from which the Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.  The court equated the placement of the tracking device on the vehicle to that of a trespasser who walks on your property without permission.  English Common Law has long recognized such a trespasser subject to sanctions for his trespass, even if no damages occurred.

Significantly, the concurring opinions focused on the government’s ability to secure the same travel related information from smart phone GPS programs and factory installed tracking devices (maps, car service contracts –ONSTAR – and the like).  Investigatory searches such as these must also be accompanied with a warrant and an affidavit of probable case regardless of whether there is a physical intrusion on a person’s property.  This is the same warrant requirement as is necessitated to tap your telephone in your house, office, or cellular telephone.

If the government does not get a warrant, any evidence gathered as a result of the warrantless intrusion onto your property for which you have an expectation of privacy will be suppressed.

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