Why Did Supreme Court Rule GPS Tracking Needs Warrant?

Updated on January 24, 2012
A.J. asks from Norristown, PA
18 answers

I'm upset ladies. And I have no one to talk to because all my friends are "privacy fanatics" when it comes to government stuff, and I'm more of a commie. I'm very upset that the Supreme Court has ruled cops now need a warrant to track subjects with GPS (I'll put link in SWH). The deciding case was when they ruled a drug dealer (who was dealing drugs btw) was unfairly "searched" in essence because they busted him by use of GPS which he did not know was on his car.

I know, I know, we don't want "big brother" to know we are driving to.....the post office....?...if we're innocent Joe Blows. And I "get" the "slippery slope" argument. But why change this law now? Has anyone INNOCENT been wrongly treated by being tracked by cops with GPS (serious question-not sarcastic)? Because as a Forensic Files fanatic, I know they have caught more than a few murderers using GPS without a warrant, including some on the way to move shallowly buried children. But now only the BAD GUYS get to use technology to stalk people and spy on people, but the COPS can't? A jealous spouse can track their mate, but the cops can't stick a GPS on the creep spotted leering at kids at the park (if he has an old car or a car without GPS) where a child went missing, because that's invading his "privacy"?

I hate it when the cop's hands are tied! Help, me ladies!! Any more insight on this? Anyone married to or in law enforcement here? Am I getting it wrong? Will this somehow NOT be as big of a victory for criminals as I think it will be?

And I'd especially like to thank any snooty recriminations directing me to read the Constitution in advance. I am familiar with amendment 4.

I just think it's odd that FINALLY, they're doing this over a case in which a drug dealer was caught rather than a case in which an innocent person was wrongfully pursued and imprisoned when found to be going somewhere perfectly legal (of which I haven't heard of that happening and I did read 1984 and the Hunger Games).

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So What Happened?

Cheryl, um, plenty of people on the right are into the privacy/no government (especially when it comes to carrying weapons) thing as well. But thank you for having some sympathy for me at least!

@Alexis, and Andra.... Good thoughts!!! I'm almost feeling better looking at it this way...

OK, ok, Mamas, I do see in this debate that I am the minority, and yes, probably wrong. I'll just go be alone with my sentiment (sniffle). Thanks to all of you who pointed out the pluses to the decision. At least I can go to the library and gas station later without being tracked -PHEW! And to others...no need to get snippy with me, my little mamapedia rant bears no threat to a unanimous Supreme Court ruling and the feelings of the vast majority....but don't come crying to me when you need the law on your side and it's all blocked up by technicalities.....(said with tail between legs like Eeyore)

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answers from Erie on

I swear I'm the only one left who has read 1984 by George Orwell.

eta...if you read the book, did you understand the message? I don't want to live in a country where this type of thing is accepted. There's a huge difference between hiring a private investigator to track a cheating spouse, and slapping a tracking device on someone who has not committed a crime. "Learing" is not a crime. There are real logical reasons why one is legal and one is not without a warrant.

All that said, trust me, the FBI and the CIA use tracking technology without a warrant all the time and we all know it.

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answers from Albany on

Well, I am a law abiding citizen with nothing to hide, same as you. And yet I LIKE it that law inforcement needs probable cause (thus a warrant) to track my comings and goings via GPS.

There are so MANY ways to catch a criminal while NOT violating his consitutional rights.

Just my $.02.


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answers from Houston on

GPS is on almost all new cars these days. The cops don't need to "stick GPS" on a vehicle to access it and track it. They just need probable cause to locate it.

What about phone lines and private conversations? Are you okay with them needing a warrant to tap a line? Are you okay with them needing a warrant to search your home or car (if you don't give permission)?

All this is is another protection for the people against a government state. If they have probable cause, they can get a warrant easily at almost any time of the day/week/year. If they can't get a warrant, they don't need to be able to track me and my movements.

We live in a country that promises freedom. The state/government being able to track my movements without probable cause infringes upon that. Period.

Update: They're doing this over a drug dealer case because the drug dealer chose to fight his conviction on the idea that it was illegal for him to be tracked using GPS without a warrant. It doesn't matter if the person is guilty or innocent in cases like these - it's simply the route by which constitutionality of government actions is challenged.

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answers from Boca Raton on

I haven't read the opinion but I'm guessing there was a problem with this pesky little issue known as the 4th Amendment.

You see, in this country the government is supposed to have the burden of proof when it intends to deprive us of our liberty.

It drives me bonkers when people say things like "I have nothing to hide!" That sort of statement shifts the burden to the people . . .

Please read up on the Constitution and our founding documents, as well as some of the landmark cases.

14 moms found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

It was a unanimous decision, meaning it was a no-brainer for them.

The 4th Amendment prohibits illegal search and seizure. There is nothing difficult about getting a warrant if you suspect someone is doing something wrong. The cops hands are not tied. They just need a warrant.

Personal property rights and others are being trampled upon right and left nowadays. I applaud the Supreme Court's decision on this case. I am surprised they ruled unanimously, but it shows they do get the basics of the Constitution -- sometimes. This is not a victory for criminals, but a victory for all of us in America who have rights bestowed on us by the Constitution.

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answers from Pittsburgh on

It doesn't mean the police can't follow a suspect. It means they have to request a warrant from a judge who may ask what grounds they have to believe the suspect committed a crime. If they have a valid reason, they should be able to obtain a warrant. And yes, they can obtain warrants after regular business hours.

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answers from Chicago on

I didn't read all of the responses, but I don't think you have much to worry about. I am a former federal law enforcement officer. We used to put these tracking devices on cars all the time. We DID get warrants to use them. I think getting warrants signed by federal judges and magistrates are probably easier than getting them signed by district judges. But it only makes sense to follow due process. Even criminals (as undeserving as they are) are allowed a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The Supreme Court ruling does not mean that cops can't use GPS tracking devices. They just need a warrant to use them. No big deal. I think most law enforcement agencies get warrants for them already.

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answers from Dallas on

They don't ask the person for a warrant, they ask the judge for a warrent. It's called the 4th amendment. Criminals are criminals because they break laws. Laws are there for a reason. GPS is on almost every car AND phone, so if the cops have a REASON, they can get a warrant.

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answers from Iowa City on

It is about due process (are you familiar with the 5th and 14th amendments?).

It isn't difficult for a warrant to be issued. If a judge doesn't think that a warrant should be issued because the police do not have enough evidence and/or probable cause (enter the 4th amendment) then the police have no business using a GPS tracking device until they do have such evidence.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from San Francisco on

Because the Fourth Amendment protects people from warantless searches and seizures and promises privacy in our homes and effects. You say you are familiar with the Fourth Amendment. What does it mean to you?

If the cops have good cause, they can apply for a warrant. The only reason they would want to sidestep the warrant clause is if they do not have good cause. It sounds like yo

You're very pro-police which is fine, but I live in CA where the cops are most definitely not on the straight and narrow. If you don't believe me, check out the various lawsuits that are pending in the United States District Court, NOrthern District of California, where cops are being sued for stealing things from people under the guise of serving search warrants. If they are stealing from people and getting away with it, what makes you think they won't use this GPS thing for personal gain?

This will probaby have more far-reaching implications. Right now, at least in CA, a cop can grab an arrestees cell phone and go through it, taking down all numbers and reading text messages. We,. in the criminal defense arena, are seeing that this new Supreme Court ruling could undermined this intrustion into a person's privacy as well.

The US Supreme Court got it right. As far as I'm concerned, it's none of Uncle Sam's business where I've been, or how long I stayed there. I have nothing to hide, but do value my privacy! What I do and where I go is none of their business!

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answers from Kansas City on

Jo W...what you wrote is exactly the reason a warrant is needed!

"The other problem is these drug dealers have attorneys that get them off on things like illegal search and seizure. Isn't it better to have the law clearly defined so they don't walk on a technicality?" wrote by Jo W.

And if you are a law abiding citizen then why be so upset? A judge will issue a warrant with probable cause...not just some random, saw a lady drive away from a gas station...I think she didn't pay for her gas. It would have to be lady drives away from a gas station, in a red pickup, with the license plates xyz123.

EVERYONE has a right to due process, even criminals! Sad to say but it's true. I think it will help in the end, less loop holes that the lawyers can find the better off the society is, with the criminals put away.

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answers from Washington DC on

i was going to answer, but you make it perfectly clear that you're not interested in actual discussion of this topic, just looking for validation of your own ire.
since googlemaps shows pictures of my house right spangdankle where i sunbathe nude, i'm glad that personal privacy is struggling gamely to hang on in some small spheres of our society. even if it does mean an occasional bad guy gets away.
freedom is not easy, cheap or 'free.'

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answers from Norfolk on

Seems to me what they really need is to find a way technology can speed up the warrant process because the D.A. or judge who issues them can get swamped and opportunities can be lost.
If it takes little time to get the warrant, there should be very little to inhibit tracking the bad guys.
Seriously, the legal code should be translated into programming code and there could be an app that you could plug in the criteria under which you desire surveillance and the app should be able to give the yea or nay to most warrant issues - subject to human review.
The few cases the app can not reach a determination can go to a human to resolve.
If there is a logical process involved (and that's somewhat debatable where law is concerned), using computers to work out that logic faster than a human brain can deal with it should be able to speed up some legal areas that are bogged down.

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answers from Boston on

Look at it this way. Cops have to follow the laws and the laws regarding technology are still being written. This law will cover GPS technology and now the cops, and not just criminals, CAN use technology. Before this law there was not an option to secure a search warrant in regard to a GPS device. By enacting this law now there is a means and guidelines to get one. Because there was not the option for the warrant, the police could not obtain the warrant, because the police could not obtain the warrant they did not have the legal right to track this vehicle. Because of laws regarding illegal search and seizure what the police did would technically be considered entrapment. Had they been able to obtain a warrant it would have made their actions legal. With this law in place they now have the ability to obtain the warrant. This law will protect innocent people. In order to obtain a warrant you need to have some type evidence that there could be a crime. When that evidence is provided a search warrant is obtained. Innocent people won't be searched because there will be no evidence to obtain a search warrant. And it is still illegal to search without one. So no, this is not a victory for criminals. In the case you cite, you can be certain that the police knew this man was a drug dealer. Had this law been in place they would have been able to obtain the warrant, and the end result would have been that the charges would have stuck.

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answers from Detroit on

Good post and good mature, informative conversation ladies! I love it.....

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answers from Austin on

It seems like they are essentially expanding the notion of "probable cause." If the GPS is already in the car or phone or mileage-tracking athletic wristwatch or whatever, they can use the warrant to look up that person's history - the information isn't lost, it's all stored somewhere. It's simply become necessary, now, to have a defined reason for accessing that information. Incidentally, I don't believe there was a mention of triangulating someone's position via wireless phone towers? Or the location your IP address has logged into, if you are using a tablet or laptop? Or, for that matter, red light and security cameras. So tracking is still possible, in a slightly less elegant way, until they have enough information for a warrant.

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answers from Houston on

Setting aside the Constitution and being American means the right to basic freedoms argument, simplistically speaking society is constructed on a basic premise. We as a band of humans create and buy into a certain set of rules/laws, moral values, a list of socially acceptable and unacceptable, etc. Each member of society agrees to exist within this framework to prevent moral decay, chaos, tyranny, etc. As a society we construct laws and other measures to protect our social framework. Criminals choose to opt out of social responsibility and they refuse to play by society’s rules for whatever reason (the world owes me something, wanting more than their work can provide, easy money, cruelty, etc). Since criminals act outside the bounds of society, they no longer operate by society’s rules. The criminals can and will do anything and everything to achieve whatever they want. As such criminals will always have the better guns, the better tools and the better whatever because it serves their purpose of perpetrating crimes. As a society we accept we can’t outgun or otherwise over strengthen the criminal element through brute force. To avoid becoming the criminal (that is acting outside society’s framework), society’s task is to outthink not overpower the criminal to bring justice and stop the crimes. Society must act by its own rules to protect its rules and its people. To break society’s rules for whatever reason is to step outside society’s framework. At which point you are no longer distinguishable from the very criminal element you are seeking to stop.

The dynamic between criminals and society is a runner’s race. You can stay on society’s side and work as a team to create a running unit without the benefit of performance enhancing drugs and other cheater’s methods. You will stay the course knowing the hard work and training is the purpose and not the means to the end. Your dedication keeps society going and protected. You run a thinking man’s race and you don’t look for the short cuts. You win some races and you lose others. Overall you stay true to the purpose, though, which makes your racing history the nobler, the truer and the best.

Alternatively you can join the criminals where you take the performance enhancing drugs and whatever other means it takes to win for the sake of winning. You don’t care how many you hurt or the pain you bring. Your focus is winning. However, your vision as a criminal is short sighted and destined to come to an end. You have lost sight of the bigger picture which is the protection and growth of society.

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answers from Pittsburgh on

I understand WHY they need a warrant.

What I don't understand is the archaic, out of date equipment and technology that police departments have to "make do" with!

TalktoTress-I've read it! I in no way want to live under laws that do not have protection from illegal search and seizure. Can you imagine that! There are already enough blurred lines to privacy.

A.--I understand your frustration but you are getting dangerously close to the argument that what is good for some is not good for all. And that's the issue. We ALL get EQUAL protection under the law.

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