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Supreme Court Agrees to Decide Whether GPS Tracking Constitutes a Search


IN U.S. v. Jones, police placed a global positioning system (GPS) on Jones' vehicle without first obtaining a search warrant. The GPS allowed law enforcement to track Jones' movements, which ultimately led to the seizure of 100 kilograms of cocaine. The federal appeals court overturned Jones' conviction, reasoning that the GPS device was a "search" and deserving of some level of protection pursuant to the Fourth Amendment.

In a similar case, police attached a GPS device to Juan Pineda-Moreno's vehicle without a warrant. Officers used the information from the GPS device to follow Moreno to a field used for marijuana cultivation. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, however, held that this did not qualify as a "search" and therefore did not implicate the warrant requirements for placement of the GPS tracking device. ( United States v. Juan Pineda-Moreno, 2010 U.S. App.

As the advancement of electronic devices progresses, devices such as GPS allow law enforcement to know an individual's location in real time. Use of this technology to monitor people's movement is an issue ripe for review and needs to be addressed. The disagreement amongst lower courts indicates confusion regarding when such electronic surveillance and monitoring can be conducted with and without a warrant.

The Supreme Court will need to consider whether law enforcement should have obtained a warrant prior to placing the device on an individual's car in order to track his whereabouts. Additionally, the Court will need to decide whether a vehicle's movement on the streets is considered "public." Oral argument is expected to be heard by the end of the year.

Scott Hughes is a criminal defense lawyer in Orange County, California practicing in State and Federal Court.

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