Supreme Court prohibits warrantless use of GPS tracking devices

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that police may not place GPS tracking devices on the cars of citizens with first obtaining a warrant.

“When this often divided Supreme Court can come together and agree on such an important decision about protecting individual privacy, that’s cause for celebration,” said Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia.

“Advances in technologies that invade individual privacy are constantly testing the Constitution,” added Willis. “Not only do we need the Supreme Court to reaffirm the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, but state legislators should be stepping forward to create laws to protect, not diminish, privacy rights.

The decision renders unconstitutional on its face HB 807, a bill currently in the Virginia General Assembly that prevents most private parties from placing GPS devices on others’ vehicles, but explicitly empowers the police to use such devices without a warrant.

The ruling, U.S. v. Jones, also clarifies a muddy Virginia case, Commonwealth v. Foltz, which challenged the right of the Fairfax County police to track a suspect using a surreptitiously placed GPS tracking device on his car without first obtaining a warrant. The ACLU of Virginia filed a brief in Foltz, arguing that the police had violated the suspects Fourth Amendment rights, the same conclusion the U.S. Supreme Court came to today.

In Foltz, however, the Virginia Court of Appeals first ruled that the police could use the device without violating the suspect’s constitutional rights. Later, in an en banc decision, the same court decided that the contested evidence did not directly arise from the use of the GPS device, and vacated the earlier decision. This left the Virginia courts with no say on an important emerging national issue regarding privacy rights.

“The message in the Jones case will resonate far beyond this particular ruling,” said Willis. “This is the Supreme Court saying loudly and clearly that it will not allow privacy-invading technologies to slip between the cracks in the Fourth Amendment. The case is likely to be cited for years to come, as more and more cases involving the erosion of privacy find their way into the courts.”


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