The Fourth Amendment and GPS Surveillance

What were you doing a year ago today at 3 pm? Where did you go Saturday after dinner? If you're like most people, you have no idea how to answer this question. You could have been anywhere, doing any number of things, with any number of people. Why would anyone need to know, anyway?

What if someone came up to you and told you every single place you had been for the last month, down to the second? Someone had been following you the entire time but never bothered to tell, nor ask, for your permission. What if it was a police officer who said you were a suspect in a crime? Would you feel any differently?

Technology has always moved faster than the law. This can cause serious problems for people accused of crimes, because they often learn that they have no protection against certain police actions. This behavior can cause privacy rights to be severely diminished for those who have no reason to be suspected of any illegal activity. A case is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court which concerns the warrantless use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for surveillance purposes.

U.S. v Jones

The case before the Court concerns the activities of Antoine Jones. Jones was suspected of several drug crimes, and was the target of an investigation in the Washington, D.C., area. Police had obtained a warrant to place a GPS device on a Jeep owned by Jones' wife, as it was determined that he regularly used the vehicle. The warrant gave police ten days to install the device, and stated that installation must occur while the vehicle was in the District of Columbia.

Police installed the tracking devices while the Jeep was in a Maryland parking lot, and this occurred outside of the ten-day period for which the warrant was valid. Jones' driving activities were monitored for 24 hours a day for four weeks, exceeding the time limit specified in the warrant. Jones had attempted to have the GPS evidence excluded from his trial, but this was denied. The only GPS data that was thrown out concerned transmissions that occurred while Jones had the vehicle parked at home, as he had a reasonable expectation of privacy while the vehicle was on his property.

A decision is expected next year. Those on both sides of this issue have raised several questions and concerns that will need to be addressed by the court. Before some of those issues will be discussed, it is important to know exactly how GPS surveillance works.

No Actual Observation Needed

We have all seen the movies where police are on a stakeout. They watch a suspect's every move, following the individual whenever he or she relocates. This can be extremely time-consuming and expensive for law enforcement, and also presents an element of human error. Police make mistakes, and might make a wrong turn, allowing them to lose a suspect.

GPS surveillance is much more sophisticated. Law enforcement places a tracking device on the suspect's vehicle. They also attach a transmitter which sends location information to a computer, and all of this data is then available for review whenever police need to examine these records. There are no wrong turns. No hard-to-read notes.

This information can be stored forever, if police deem it necessary. Additionally, there may be no date in place for when the surveillance is supposed to end. As long as investigators keep the equipment in working order, it could go on until all habits and patterns have been established or necessary information is obtained.

Why Should it Matter to You?

We are in a tough economy. Every dollar counts. States are constantly looking for ways to cut costs, and Colorado is no exception. The use of GPS surveillance allows municipalities to save money while providing extremely accurate information. It makes cases that much easier to prove for prosecutors.

However, the main argument against this type of activity is that this information comes at a great cost to our constitutional rights. The Fourth Amendment provides protection from law enforcement performing illegal searches and seizures. In fact, several states have required that police obtain warrants before being allowed to install GPS devices. Previous cases involving surveillance of motor vehicles have allowed only the use of unsophisticated tracking devices, which required much more human interaction than a GPS.

As technology continues to evolve, if the law does not protect the privacy rights of individuals, it will become increasingly more difficult to defend yourself against illegal searches and seizures. Evidence that may have been unlawfully obtained could be used against you at trial, putting you at an extreme disadvantage.

Law enforcement takes these investigations seriously. Do not think that you can talk yourself out of trouble. If you have been charged with a crime, you have rights. Speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area to understand how best to defend yourself against these charges.