U.S. Supreme Court: GPS Tracking Requires a Search Warrant

In a necessary clarification of the law as it relates to modern technology, the United State Supreme Court today ruled that attachment of a GPS tracking device to a suspect's vehicle constitutes a "search" under the Fourth Amendment, requiring law enforcement to obtain a search warrants. Read the 34 page decision here.

Fairly recent technological advancements in GPS technology have opened the door for law enforcement to track suspects even when they can't see them. The scenario is increasingly common: police believe that a suspect is a drug dealer, so they wait until he parks on a public street and hide a GPS tracker under his bumper. Then they sit back and log his travels from a stash house to drug deal and back.

After police arrest a suspect, many courts would allow the GPS evidence at trial because it was collected from a vehicle moving from place to place on public roads and in plain sight of anyone. The United States Supreme Court's new decision in United States v. Jones makes clear that collection of GPS evidence constitutes a "search" under the Fourth Amendment (thus requiring a warrant), and that GPS data evidence collected without a warrant must be suppressed. United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. ____ (2012).

In Jones, law enforcement actually obtained a warrant for the suspect, however it was limited to within 10 days of the judge signing it, and the warrant stated that the GPS device had to be installed within the District of Columbia. The police installed the device on the 11th day, and they did it in Maryland. The Supreme Court held that this constituted an impermissible warrantless search, and upheld the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals' reversal of the defendant's conviction.

The Court made an important point: even though the information obtained by police could have been obtained by traditional surveillance (vehicle tails, aerial surveillance, etc.), in Jones, it was not. 565 U.S. ____ at 11. It is uncontroverted that "a person travelling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another." United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276, 281 (1986). The difference in Jones is that the police did not obtain their information by these "traditional" means, and instead relied on an electronic shortcut, and did so without a valid warrant.

While the Jones decision may have implications for some cases pending trial, the more immediate effect is on law enforcement polices and practices. When the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, issues a decision such as this, it places law enforcement on notice that their old tactics are no longer acceptable. Now when the police want to track a suspect by GPS, they must obtain a search warrant from a judge prior to installing a tracking device, or else the evidence they collect will be inadmissible in court.

The law firm of Dreyer Boyajian LLP represents individuals and corporations accused of criminal offenses. If you are under investigation or have been arrested, it is crucial that you promptly obtain legal counsel. Our attorneys practice in all state and federal courts in New York and Massachusetts. If you have been accused of a crime, call us today at (518) 348-4133. The opinions set forth above do not constitute legal advice, and are for informational purposes only.


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