Can the police track your car using GPS without a warrant?
In 2005, Antoine Jones, ran a nightclub in Washington, D.C. The police suspected he was also dealing in drugs. So they attached a global positioning system (GPS) to his car without his consent or knowledge and tracked his movements for the next 28 days.
The investigation led to Antoine’s arrest. He was convicted of drug trafficking (conspiracy to distribute cocaine) and was sentenced to life in prison. His conviction rested heavily on the evidence collected during the month he was monitored.
The police used the GPS without obtaining a search warrant from a judge. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures” and warrants cannot be issued without a showing of “probable cause” supported by sworn testimony of a police officer. The Fourth Amendment reads in part “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects…” Although cars are not mentioned, the Bill of Rights adapts to changing times and technology.
Antoine appealed his conviction and in January, 2012, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the search by GPS without a warrant was unconstitutional.* Although the decision was 9 to 0, the reasoning of the justices was actually 5 to 4. The majority found that attaching the GPS to the car was a trespass, and without approval of a judge by way of a warrant, constituted an illegal search. Four of the justices decided the case by holding that Antoine’s reasonable privacy expectations were violated by the long-term monitoring of his car’s movements. They wrote that the police should be on the safe side and get a warrant.
The case makes no distinction between minors and adults. Although seen as a victory for privacy, it may be applied to monitoring teen drivers. If sufficient cause exists to present the case to a judge, a search warrant may be issued authorizing the attachment of a GPS to a vehicle driven by a teenager. Questions about the parents being the registered owners will likely be addressed in the future.
*U.S. v. Antoine Jones, January 23, 2012, 2012 WL 171117.