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Court: GPS Tracking Is a "Search" Under the 4th Amendment

Contained in the Bill of Rights is the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment protects people from "unreasonable searches and seizures" by the government. Essentially, this means that before a law enforcement or other governmental agency is able to "spy" on you, they have to go before a judge to obtain a warrant by providing good reasons for why they should be able to do so.

From popular "crime and punishment" television and movies, most people understand this amendment to protect them from law enforcement officers entering their homes or placing wiretaps on their phones without a warrant, and this is true. But what can be considered a search may be much broader than these two situations.

In United States v. Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the placement of a global positioning system (GPS) tracking device on people's vehicles is a "search" within the scope of the 4th Amendment. However, in reaching this decision, the Court did not decide at what general point in time police need to obtain a warrant in order to track a suspect by GPS.

A few of the justices noted that there may be instances when tracking a suspect by GPS without first obtaining a warrant may be justified. Other justices concluded that a person's right to privacy would unreasonably be infringed upon if long-term GPS tracking is undertaken without a warrant.

With this ruling, the Court put GPS tracking squarely within the scope of the 4th Amendment. However, at what point police officers need to seek and obtain a warrant is unclear in a general sense. When and even if the police need to obtain a warrant will depend on the specific facts of a situation.

Source: "Cops Need Warrant to Track You Via GPS,", 1/24/12

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