Supreme Court Hears Landmark Privacy Case

Global Positioning System (GPS) devices are a modern convenience that many people have become accustomed to having. GPS devices are in our car navigation systems and our smart phones. These devices can also be found at the center of a hotly contested legal battle being argued before the Supreme Court.

For the first time, the Supreme Court will hear arguments regarding GPS technology and whether police have the authority to track a suspect using that technology without a warrant. The case, United States v. Jones, is being heard by the Supreme Court in the government’s attempt to challenge the reach of the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure of evidence of a crime. In taking on this case, the court is making an active decision to revisit the topic of whether advancements in technology can or should affect an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

This case revolves around a six-year-old drug investigation of a Washington, D.C., nightclub owner, Antoine Jones (drug charges sometimes result of unreasonable search and seizure). Crucial to Jones’ conviction for conspiracy to distribute cocaine was police use of a GPS device on his vehicle to track his whereabouts. Using GPS, police were able to juxtapose Jones’ physical location with proximity to illegal activities. Jones was sentenced to life in prison, but a U.S. appeals court later made a precedent-setting decision to overturn the sentence because the extended period of time a GPS device was used was such that it should have required police to obtain a warrant.

The government has appealed this case to the Supreme Court in hopes of overturning the lower court’s ruling. The government’s position is that requiring a warrant in such situations could jeopardize its ability to investigate drug trafficking, terrorism and other serious criminal activities. It believes that the delay required for acquiring a warrant could lead to situations in which critical information is obtained too late or not at all. In matters of national security, any delay could present a grave danger to citizens.

Contrary to the Obama administration’s opinion, there are many who feel that the damage to civil liberties presented by use of such tracking methods is the far superior concern. At issue for these people is whether this technology should be employed in a manner for which it was not intended. Furthermore, does it gather information in a fashion that allows for an unjust advantage to those who seek it? Beyond the constitutionality of its use, there are extreme views of what this type of surveillance could represent. To some, using GPS technology in such a manner represents an Orwellian surveillance state as envisioned in “1984,” where pervasive government surveillance was the norm and governmental checks and balances did not exist.

This matter will ultimately be decided by the country’s highest court in a decision that will further legal understanding between technology and its users and the extent to which that technology can be used against us during a crime investigation. Regardless of the outcome of this particular litigation, technology’s reach will always complicate the world we live in, but it is society that will set the legal boundaries of that reach despite the capabilities that exist because of technology.

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