High court’s GPS decision sidesteps larger privacy question: Vanderbilt expert

A decision by the Supreme Court that requires law enforcement officers to obtain search warrants before placing a Global Positioning System device on a suspect’s vehicle leaves a broader issue still open, says a professor at Vanderbilt Law School.

“Much government tracking does not involve use of a device planted on a car,” said Christopher Slobogin, Milton R. Underwood Chair in Law and director of the Criminal Justice Program at Vanderbilt Law School.

Chris Slobogin (Vanderbilt)

“It’s much more common for tracking to involve triangulation using signals from a driver’s phone or from a transponder already installed in a car by the manufacturer.”

The high court ruled unanimously Jan. 23 that a search warrant is needed to plant a physical tracking device on a vehicle. But only four members of the court – not a majority – were willing to go further and hold that continuously monitoring such a device for a month is also a search.

“One study indicated that over the past several years police made over 8 million requests to phone companies for help in carrying out cell phone GPS tracking, the kind that does not require an attached device,” Slobogin said.

“So United States v. Jones leaves much up in the air still.  Still it signals that the Supreme Court is willing to revisit how the Fourth Amendment applies to technologically-enhanced investigations, which is a good sign.”

The case involved Antoine Jones, who was convicted on drug charges based on evidence gathered using a tracking device attached to his vehicle for 28 days in the Washington, D.C. area. The police had obtained a search warrant against Jones, but it expired before the device was attached to his car.