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Use Of GPS Tracking Information As Evidence In Criminal Proceedings

Back on January 23, 2012, the United States Supreme Court issued an important ruling regarding the use of GPS tracking in a criminal prosecution in United States v. Jones.

As technology has quickly evolved, the police and prosecutors have many new tools at their disposal to use against those suspected of wrongdoing. Closed Circuit surveillance cameras are much more prevalent in public places. There is software embedded in smart phones that allows for pinpointing the location of a user at any given time. Every time a driver uses his Sun Pass to pay a toll, his location is recorded. Any time a person browses the internet, a record is created of the web sites that are visited as well as products that are purchased.

When all of these technological innovations, and many others, are used by law enforcement they create a significant danger to an average person's expectation of privacy.

In Jones, police placed a GPS tracking device on the car of a person who was suspected in drug trafficking activities. The police did not obtain a warrant in order to track the defendant in that manner.

Hence, the court ruled 9-0 that placing the GPS tracking device on the car, without a warrant, was improper. As a result, Mr. Jones's constitutional rights were violated and the conviction was overturned. Despite unanimous rejection of the police methods used in that case, the Supreme Court was split on how the ruling should be applied in the future.

The majority of the Court ruled that the police conduct was improper because they seized the defendant's car without permission in order to physically install the GPS tracking device. Those actions amounted to a trespass on the defendant's property and thus the GPS readings could not be used.

However, the question was left open whether the GPS readings could be used if they had been obtained from a third party, such as a car's manufacturer or OnStar. That is a very important distinction.

The majority of the court refused to answer that question, because the defendant's conviction could be overturned on clearer grounds. Thus, the Court had the luxury of avoiding a very difficult issue.

Interestingly, four of the nine Supreme Court Justices argued that the ruling could be applied to the use of all types of GPS tracking, electronic toll payments, and internet activity. That would include information and records that the police obtain from third parties, such as Apple, Sun Pass, OnStar and others.

In other words, if the police want to view those types of records, they would need to obtain a warrant in order to do so. The police can only obtain a warrant in a criminal investigation if they have probable cause that the suspect was engaged in criminal activity. Thus, the police would be unable to use that information to fish for signs of criminal activity, without other independent evidence to support their investigation.

Although that issue has been left unresolved by the ruling in Jones, the court will be forced to answer the question soon enough. The Supreme Court has indicated that there is a very good chance that the use of information and records that can be readily accessed by third parties may not be used by the police in a criminal investigation unless a warrant is obtained.

Without that protection, there would be little to safeguard an individual's expectation of privacy in the age that we live.