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Police GPS Tracking Devices Declared a Valid Search

The United States Supreme Court periodically issues decisions in which the scope of the public’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, as protected by the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, comes into conflict with law enforcement’s use of new technology.

In the latest such decision, the United States vs. Jones, announced on January 23, 2012, the US Supreme Court declared that law enforcement officers to conduct a search or seizure and must comply with the Fourth Amendment when they install a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s vehicle.

Jones was the target of an investigation by the FBI and local police. As part of their surveillance, law enforcement agents applied for a warrant authorizing the installation of a GPS tracking device on the vehicle which was registered to Jones’s wife. However, the GPS device was not installed in compliance with the specific terms of the warrant.

During the following 4 weeks, the GPS device enabled law enforcement to gather an enormous quantity of data concerning Jones’s activities, which resulted in Jones being convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, for which Jones received a sentence of life in prison.

Upon review, the United States Supreme Court held that the Constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures does regulate the ability of law enforcement agents in regard to their installation of a GPS tracking device on a person’s vehicle as part of a criminal investigation.

In Jones, the Supreme Court traced the history of its previous decisions in which the Constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches has been considered in various situations. One of the past decisions discussed by the Court in Jones is a case which the author of this blog entry personally litigated before the US Supreme Court as a new attorney more than 40 years ago. In that case, the Court decided that a police officer does conduct a search under the Fourth Amendment when he makes an entry, although brief, into the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle in an effort to gather evidence. Interested readers are invited to read the entire decision in the case I litigated, which is officially published as New York vs. Class, 475 US 106 (1986).

We can be pleased that the Supreme Court has upheld our Constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures against encroachment on the part of law enforcement. Attorneys who work to protect the Fourth Amendment rights of their clients can find encouragement in the Court’s latest decision on this subject.

The entire decision of the US Supreme Court in Jones can be found by clicking the following link:

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