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An appellate court has finally supplied an answer to an open question left dangling by the Supreme Court in 2012: Do law enforcement agencies need a probable-cause warrant to affix a GPS tracker to a target’s vehicle?
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals gave a resounding yes to that question today in a 2 to 1 decision.
“Today’s decision is a victory for all Americans because it ensures that the police cannot use powerful tracking technology without court supervision and a good reason to believe it will turn up evidence of wrongdoing,” said ACLU attorney Catherine Crump in a statement. “These protections are important because where people go reveals a great deal about them, from who their friends are, where they visit the doctor and where they choose to worship.”
It’s the first appeals court ruling in the wake of United States v. Jones, a Supreme Court case involving a convicted drug dealer. In that case, the Supreme Court justices ruled in January 2012 that law enforcement’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. The justices declined to rule at the time, however, on whether such a search was unreasonable and therefore required a warrant.
A number of court cases in the wake of Jones have grappled with the question of GPS trackers, but all of these cases have involved the use of GPS trackers prior to the Supreme Court decision. In these cases, the courts had to decide whether evidence obtained through the use of GPS trackers was still admissible in light of the Supreme Court decision. Several courts around the country have ruled that the evidence gathered prior to the Supreme Court ruling can be submitted in court because investigators were acting in good faith at the time, relying on what were then binding rulings in several U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal that authorized the use of warrantless GPS trackers for surveillance.

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Global positioning system (GPS) technology is a very useful tool for police when they need to track a possible suspect in a felony case. However, the 4th Amendment states that a search warrant must be issued whenever going through a citizen’s papers or effects. An automobile counts as a tangible effect in most jurisdictions. Therefore, the police should be required to issue a probable-cause warrant to affix a GPS tracker to a target or suspect’s vehicle. When installing a GPS tracker or electronic equipment like a bug to monitor a suspect’s communications, law enforcement is technically conducting a search; United States v. Jones (2012) provides judicial precedent on this account. If law enforcement wants to conduct a search within a suspect’s property, they are required to issue a search or probable-cause warrant prior to the investigation....

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