Supreme Court Decision on Electronic Surveillance


Supreme Court Decision on Electronic SurveillanceOn Monday the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that—depending on how you look at it—makes either a strong case or a weak case for the right to privacy.

The case involves a GPS device that police in the District of Columbia attached to Antoine Jones’s Jeep without obtaining a warrant first. After tracking Jones for 28 days, police arrested him for running a drug operation. After hearing the case, the Supreme Court ruled that the arrest violated Jones’s rights.

Justice Alito explained, “Society’s expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others would not—and indeed, in the main, simply could not—secretly monitor and catalog every single movement of an individual’s car for a very long period.”

Constitutional rights related to vehicles have always presented special problems to law enforcement. A car is a private enclosure that often occupies a public place and can easily elude a police officer with a search warrant. Recognizing the legal complexities, Constitutional experts have generally agreed that the “probable cause” test for warrantless searches of cars is more flexible than what is required for searching a home or business.

The Supreme Court’s most recent decision seems to tilt in the opposite direction: Electronic surveillance of a car requires a search warrant.

But here’s where the ambiguity lies. The decision was based on the physical nature of a GPS, not the right to privacy. Justice Scalia wrote, “The government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information.”

Can intrusive surveillance methods be used if they don’t require access to a car? For example, what if law enforcement obtained a tracking device that could track a bar code installed by the car’s manufacturer? The Supreme Court decision does not address this question.

Observers note that the Supreme Court’s decision is based on property rights (the prohibition against trespassing) rather than the more controversial idea that citizens are guaranteed the right to privacy.

As technology becomes more sophisticated, both criminals and police are sure to find new ways to obtain and use information. We can expect more court cases like this one as Americans struggle to resolve the increasingly complex problem of how technology affects a citizen’s right to privacy and an officer’s right to protect public safety.

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D., is the author of Police Talk and The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Visit www.YourPoliceWrite for free resources for writing better reports.

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