Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in US v. Jones, a case regarding police use of GPS tracking devices in criminal investigations. The case has dire Fourth Amendment implications.
In its decision, the Supreme Court will settle differences between rulings of two federal appeals courts. In one case, US v. Jones, the lower court overturned a conviction, saying that police use of GPS tracking devices without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment. In the other, US v. Pineda-Moreno, a different court upheld a conviction based on evidence obtained from a GPS tracker placed on the suspect’s car while it was parked in his driveway, denying that he had an expectation of privacy there.
Ahead of the arguments, I spoke to Lawyers.com, explaining that the Pineda-Moreno ruling makes a
ridiculous class distinction. It means that if you have enough money to enclose your property with a fence, the police can’t enter because you have an expectation of privacy within your property. If you don’t have those resources, then police can come in and attach a GPS device to your car without any judicial checks or balances. The decision means the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply equally to everyone.
But it’s not just the class issues that create problems, as I noted in that same piece:
Buttar fears that if the Court doesn’t look beyond the formalistic Fourth Amendment analysis, the government will gain the unbridled power to track anyone, anytime, anywhere, without any oversight. But, he says, if the Court instead considers the purposes of the First, Fourth, or Fourteenth Amendments – which include protecting rights of association, privacy, free exercise of religion, and racial & ethnic minorities – the outcome will be different.
It’s easy to see how GPS tracking helps law enforcement catch criminals. After all it helped win these two convictions. But Buttar claims that the benefit to the government of warrantless GPS tracking is “trivial when you consider how easy it is for law enforcement to get a warrant. Compare the vast investigatory powers police already have against the profound harm to privacy and associational rights in removing any judicial check on warrantless location tracking. In asserting this authority, our government is claiming police powers more like those in the Soviet Union or Communist China, well beyond the traditionally limited government powers on which we Americans, inspired by our Founders, have always insisted.”
We at the Bill of Rights Defense Committee will be monitoring developments in this crucial case and posting more information here at FDL and on our blog as it becomes available.
But while we wait for the Supreme Court to rule, there’s more we can do to protect rights in our individual communities. Join—or start!—a local civil rights restoration campaign in your city or town or check out other ways to get involved.