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Can the Police Use GPS? Supreme Court Says No

The Supreme Court has limited the tracking of GPS devices by law enforcement. The decision, released on January 23, will affect the privacy rights of Americans for years to come. Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, described the high court ruling as "a victory for privacy rights and for civil liberties in the digital age."

The ruling overturned the conviction of Antoine Jones, who was convicted of operating a drug trafficking ring out of his club in Washington, D.C. Issues in the case included:

•· Law enforcement placed a GPS tracking device on Jones' car without a warrant.

•· How long the warrantless "search" was conducted was at issue In the Jones case, officers monitored the suspect's movements for four weeks, suggesting that if police used GPS for a shorter period of time the use of the tracking device might be legal. In 1983, the court affirmed that police could use beepers to track suspects during single trips. The question in this case was whether the Fourth Amendment allows police to use tracking devices over much longer periods.

•· Whether people have a right to expect privacy when using devices such as cell phones or computers connected to the Internet, which can also be tracked in a similar way to the tracking provided by GPS devices

Police placed the GPS device in the car while it was parked in a Maryland parking lot. The device was only one source of evidence that was also drawn from visual surveillance and a wiretap on Jones's cell phone.

Source: Bloomberg Businessweek, "Police Use of GPS Devices Limited by U.S. Supreme Court", by Greg Stohr, Jan. 23, 2012.

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