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Gps tracking requires a warrant says supreme court

January 24, 2012

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In a controversial decision, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that will assist defendants in fighting their charges and curtail law enforcement's ability to conduct surveillance on suspects committing criminal offenses. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that there are privacy interests involving GPS devices and that warrants may be required to obtain permission to use them. It is uncommon for Miami criminal attorneys to see cases involving GPS tracking devices, certainly on the state level. The case being heard in front of the Supreme Court came by way of Washington, D.C. A suspected drug trafficking kingpin was prosecuted with evidence obtained as a result of using a GPS devise. The case was reversed and remanded for a new trial.

According to the Court's opinion, all the justices agreed that the Fourth Amendment applies to GPS devices. Federal investigators attached a GPS to the defendant's vehicle and monitored his movements over a twenty-eight day period. Significant evidence was acquired through the use of device and helped convict the purported drug kingpin of charges serious enough to merit life in prison. The trial garnered a lot of media attention during its pendency. An appellate lawyer from Washington, D.C., filed an appeal on behalf of the defendant, specifically objecting to the use of the GPS devise. The government filed a response claiming that the use of a GPS device is no different than current forms of low-tech monitoring that are not protected by the Fourth Amendment.

While the decision of the Supreme Court was unanimous, the judges were split 5 to 4 on the basis for their findings. The Justice Scalia, representing the majority of the court, found that the attachment of the device was in and of itself unconstitutional. He specifically wrote, "We hold that the government's installation of a GPS on a target's vehicle, and its use of that devise to monitor the vehicle's movements, constitutes a search." The Court did not go as far to say all uses of a GPS device will be per se prohibited, but the use of any such device would be "risky undertaking". The court did not address other modern forms of surveillance devices and explained that they did not want to "rush forward" and make other decisions other than the issue at hand.

Surveillance has always been a primary means of gathering evidence for federal and local law enforcement agencies. Wiretaps have always been the most common form of intelligence gathering. As technology advances, law enforcement will seek to implement new ways to use that technology to prosecute individuals suspected of drug trafficking, money laundering, and other forms of organized crime. Anyone charged with a criminal offense that is supported by the use of surveillance equipment should discuss the case with an experienced criminal defense attorney familiar with the requirements federal law enforcement must comply with prior to obtaining evidence in this manner.

Supreme Court: Warrants Needed in GPS Tracking, The Washington, January 24, 2012.
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