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Supreme Court: Search Warrant is Required for GPS Tracking Device

January 24, 2012

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the police are required to obtain a search warrant in order to use GPS technology to track someone suspected of committing a crime.

In United States v. Jones, the police installed a GPS tracking device on Jones’ vehicle and then tracked him to a residence that was allegedly used to stash drugs.  Jones was sentence to life in prison but his conviction has now been overturned as a result of the officers’ failure to obtain a search warrant prior to installing the device.  Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the main opinion and stated that “By attaching the device to the Jeep…officers encroached on a protected area.”   The Court concluded that the use of the GPS device constitutes a search for which a warrant is required.  The Court noted that it was not ruling in this case whether the same rule would apply to the use of GPS tracking of wireless devices such as mobile phones.

Criminal defense attorneys in Georgia, especially those who handle federal cases, deal with the use of GPS tracking devices on a regular basis.  This type of surveillance has become commonplace with federal agents investigating many types of crimes, including bank robbery, RICO offenses and drug crimes.  Criminal defense attorneys routinely seek to suppress this evidence by challenging the search warrant authorizing the use of the device.  Challenges to these warrants will often deal with whether the officers had probable cause to believe the individual was committing a crime at the time the warrant was issued.  If the court finds that the search warrant should not have been issued, the evidence obtained using the device will be suppressed.

Now that GPS technology is being used frequently to track mobile phones, the Court will undoubtedly be faced with this same question again soon.  Based on the comments by Justices Alito, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan though it sounds as if the Court will require search warrants in those instances as well.

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