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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Court Rules Probable-Cause Warrant Required for GPS Trackers -- By Kim Zetter, Wired, Threat Level

The second of two GPS trackers found recently on the vehicle of a young man in California. Photo: Jon Snyder/Wired.com

An appellate court has finally supplied an answer to an open question left dangling by the Supreme Court in 2012: Do law enforcement agencies need a probable-cause warrant to affix a GPS tracker to a target’s vehicle?

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals gave a resounding yes to that question today in a 2 to 1 decision.

“Today’s decision is a victory for all Americans because it ensures that the police cannot use powerful tracking technology without court supervision and a good reason to believe it will turn up evidence of wrongdoing,” said ACLU attorney Catherine Crump in a statement. “These protections are important because where people go reveals a great deal about them, from who their friends are, where they visit the doctor and where they choose to worship.”

It’s the first appeals court ruling in the wake of United States v. Jones, a Supreme Court case involving a convicted drug dealer. In that case, the Supreme Court justices ruled in January 2012 that law enforcement’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. The justices declined to rule at the time, however, on whether such a search was unreasonable and therefore required a warrant.

A number of court cases in the wake of Jones have grappled with the question of GPS trackers, but all of these cases have involved the use of GPS trackers prior to the Supreme Court decision. In these cases, the courts had to decide whether evidence obtained through the use of GPS trackers was still admissible in light of the Supreme Court decision. Several courts around the country have ruled that the evidence gathered prior to the Supreme Court ruling can be submitted in court because investigators were acting in good faith at the time, relying on what were then binding rulings in several U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal that authorized the use of warrantless GPS trackers for surveillance.

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