Unfettered GPS Tracking by Police? Justices Weigh In

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The U.S. Supreme Court dived into the thorny question of whether police should be able to use the latest high-tech equipment unfettered when it comes to tracking suspects.

Most people consider GPS a handy system for helping them navigate their world. But how would they feel if they found police, without a warrant, using GPS to track their every move?

Now the justices are considering whether the use of such technology is constitutional.

The case involves a Washington, D.C. nightclub owner, Antoine Jones, who was charged with drug trafficking. Police had placed, without warrant, a GPS device on his Jeep Cherokee.

Evidence from that GPS device was essential in procuring a guilty verdict and a life sentence against Jones.

The Obama administration argued for unfettered use of such devices by law enforcement.
   
Justices appeared surprised when the government lawyer said it would even be okay to place GPS devices on the cars of all nine justices and track them.

Jones' lawyers argued that the government's position goes too far.

"I think the deputy solicitor general's comment that the federal number of GPS devices being used on citizens' cars without any warrants, without any supervision by a court or a magistrate, was in the 'low thousands' was not a reassuring answer," Walter Dellinger, co-counsel for Jones, said.

Another member of Jones' legal team, Stephen Leckar, argued against warrantless GPS surveillance.

"There's 880,000 law enforcement agents in the United States," he told the justices.

"Do citizens honestly believe these people should have the unfettered discretion to put these pervasive, limitless devices, these robotic search devices, on people's cars without first going to a judge and saying, 'Do I have your permission to do it?'" he asked.

One justice asked if this wouldn't be an illegal act if a neighbor did it.

"Your neighbor can watch you leave the house and can follow you down the street," Dellinger noted. 

"But your neighbor cannot put 24 satellites into geosynchronous orbit and, without your permission or consent, commit a criminal and civil trespass by placing a device under your car," he said.

So the question remains: in an age when 24-hour-a-day, anywhere-on-the-planet surveillance is possible, should police have the right to use that power?

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Paul  Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Washington Sr. Correspondent

As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.