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Appeals Court Rules Against Secret Police GPS
By Ryan Singel
August 6, 2010 | 5:35 pm | Categories: Crime, Surveillance, The Courts
A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the police can’t
covertly track a suspect’s car using a GPS device for an extended period of time without getting a warrant.
The ruling in the D.C. Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of a suspected cocaine dealer, saying that
the use of a secret GPS tracking device on the man’s vehicle for two months violated the Fourth Amendment’s
protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed
a friend of the court brief supporting the challenge.
The government argued that a 1983 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Knotts, which allowed police to put a tracking
beacon in a container to follow a driver to a secluded cabin, made it clear that GPS tracking was allowed
without a judge’s approval.
But the court found otherwise in its ruling (.pdf), drawing a distinction between short term monitoring that’s
not much different from a police tail and ongoing, secret and ubiquitious tracking.
Repeated visits to a church, a gym, a bar, or a bookie tell a story not told by any single visit, as
does one’s not visiting any of these places over the course of a month. The sequence of a person’s
movements can reveal still more; a single trip to a gynecologist’s office tells little about a
woman, but that trip followed a few weeks later by a visit to a baby supply store tells a different
Having tracked Jones’s movements for a month, the Government used the resulting pattern — not
just the location of a particular ―stash house or Jones’s movements on any one trip or even day
— as evidence of Jones‘s involvement in the cocaine trafficking busine