Big Victory: Obama Administration Dealt Stinging, Unanimous Rebuke By High Court
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that law enforcement authorities need a probable-cause warrant from a judge to affix a GPS device to a vehicle and monitor its movements.
The decision [PDF] in what is likely the biggest Fourth Amendment case in the computer age rejected the Obama Administration’s position that American citizens have no right to privacy in their public movements, reports David Kravets at Wired.
The justices, however, employed radically different rationales to come to their answer, reports Mike Sacks at the Huffington Post, leaving unsettled the question of how much Fourth Amendment privacy protection citizens can expect in the age of technology.
|Back row (left to right): Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel A. Alito, and Elena Kagan. Front row (left to right): Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg|
The government, in a questionable legal strategy, had argued before the high court that it could affix GPS devices on the vehicles of all members of the Supreme Court — without a warrant.
“We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,’ ” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote.
The justices had agreed to hear the case in order to settle conflicting decisions from lower courts, some of which had ruled that a warrant was necessary for GPS monitoring, while others found the government had unchecked powers to monitor the movements of Americans.
One of the Obama Administration’s main arguments in support of warrantless GPS tracking was the high court’s 1983 decision in United States v. Knotts, in which the justices ruled that the government can use beepers known as “bird dogs” to track a suspect’s vehicle without a warrant.
That 1983 beeper case is one of the reasons the issue was before the justices today. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Court had ruled that suspected D.C. drug dealer Antoine Jones’ Fourth Amendment rights were violated with the warrantless use of a GPS attached underneath his vehicle. The court reversed Jones’s conviction, ruling that the FBI needed a warrant.
The appeals court said the beeper in the 1983 case tracked a person “from one place to another,” while the GPS device monitored Jones’s “movements 24 hours a day for 28 days.”
The appeals court ruled the case “illustrates how the sequence of a person’s movements may reveal more than the individual movements of which it is composed.”
Several justices mentioned, during oral arguments in the case in November, the specter of Big Brother if the police are allowed to secretly attach GPS tracking devices on Americans’ cars without being required to get a probable-cause warrant first.
The last time the Supreme Court considered the Fourth Amendment in regard to technology and privacy in a major case was a decade ago, when the justices ruled that law enforcement authorities must get search warrants to employ thermal-imaging devices to detect indoor marijuana-growing operations.
In that case, the Court ruled that imaging devices carry the potential to “shrink the realm of guaranteed privacy.”
The Obama Administration urged the Court to reinstate the conviction — and the life sentence — of Jones, a suspected cocaine dealer whose car was tracked for a month without a warrant via GPS.
The government argued before the justices that the GPS devices have become a common tool in law enforcement, admitting it employs them to spy on citizens “thousands” of times each year.