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Bloomberg News

Police Use of GPS Devices Limited by U.S. Supreme Court

January 26, 2012

(Updates with comments from justices starting in third paragraph.)

Jan. 23 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court put new limits on the power of police to track criminal suspects’ cars using GPS signals, ruling for the first time on the constitutional implications of the increasingly common devices.

Today’s decision addresses the unprecedented power technology is giving police to peer into Americans’ day-to-day activities.

The justices unanimously overturned the drug conviction of Antoine Jones, while splintering in their reasoning. Writing for the five-justice majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said police officers “encroached on a protected area” when they attached a global-positioning system device to Jones’ car without a valid warrant.

Other justices used more sweeping reasoning, saying police might violate the constitutional ban on unreasonable searches even when they obtain GPS signals without having to attach a device to a car. With vehicles increasingly coming pre-equipped with GPS technology, officers might not need to attach an additional device in many future cases.

“Awareness that the government may be watching chills associational and expressive freedoms,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a concurring opinion. “And the government’s unrestrained power to assemble data that reveal private aspects of identity is susceptible to abuse.”

Length of Time

In another concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito and three other justices said the key might be the length of time officers use GPS information to monitor a suspect without a warrant.

Jones, now 51, owned a nightclub in Washington, where prosecutors say he ran a narcotics trafficking organization. The GPS device, placed in the car while it was in a Maryland parking lot, was one facet of an investigation by local and federal authorities that also included visual surveillance and a wiretap on Jones’s mobile phone.

Investigators eventually were able to tie Jones to a suspected drug stash house. Jones was arrested and convicted in federal court of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. He was serving a life sentence.

The Supreme Court in 1983 upheld the use of a beeper placed on a car to track a suspect during a single trip. The question in the latest case was whether the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment lets police use GPS devices continuously over longer periods without first going to a judge. Lower courts were divided on the issue.

The Obama administration urged the high court not to require a warrant for GPS use, calling it a minimally intrusive step that yields important results in drug and terrorism cases. To obtain a warrant, officers must show a judge that they have “probable cause” to believe the search will lead to evidence of a crime.

The case is United States v. Jones, 10-1259.

--Editors: Justin Blum, Laurie Asseo

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at

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