Cell phones, laptops, credit cards, emails, tablets. Today’s technology is ubiquitous, and increasingly uses monitoring software to provide better service by storing information about consumer movement in computer databases. Information that can tell a precise, coherent narrative about a person’s location at a particular time is invaluable information to law enforcement, but is it constitutional for them to access that information without first acquiring a warrant?
It’s this burning question that elevates a Washington, DC drug dealer’s case to the Supreme Court. Though the DC Police Department’s use of a GPS tracker to monitor drug trafficking suspect Antoine Jones in 2005 (the result was the seizure of 100 kilograms of cocaine and $1 million) is the specific instance, what’s really at question is to what degree the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from warrantless tracking and monitoring in an age in which private businesses have access this valuable information.
Groups like the ACLU have sued the Department of Justice in an effort to force the government to disclose how it determines which suspects do not require a warrant to track, and by which technologies.
In 1961, the Supreme Court ruled that police needed a warrant before placing a bug in the heating duct of a suspect’s home. Then, six years later, in Katz v. U.S., the court said authorities violated the Fourth Amendment by tapping a bookie’s calls without warrant, even though the suspect made them from a public telephone booth.
Justice Potter Stewart wrote that the issue was not whether the activity, like using a payphone or driving on the streets, happened in public view, but whether the activity was intended to be private.
“The Fourth Amendment protects people, not places,” he wrote. “What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection. But what he seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected.”
It’s legal for police to monitor a suspect by following him or her in a cruiser, but unless law enforcement stays on the tail 24/7, there’s no comparison to the amount of data and information relayed by simply using a GPS tracker. There are now more efficient and effective means of doing something the police can legally do, but those advantages create a violation of privacy, according to U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia.
What is likely maddening to law enforcement involved in the Jones case is that they actually received a warrant—they had probable cause–but used the GPS device after it had expired.
However this case is about far more than a night club owner and drug dealer in Washington DC. The ruling from this case will constitute a starting point for balancing new, aggressive monitoring technologies with the protections allowed in the Fourth Amendment.