Court Restricts Police Use of GPS Tracking Devices

Dennis Faas's picture

A federal appeals court has ruled that law enforcement authorities in the United States must get a warrant before hiding a global positioning system (GPS) tracker on a suspect's car. The ruling clarifies an issue left unanswered by a previous Supreme Court verdict.

The legal confusion followed a high-profile case involving a suspected drug dealer who was tried and convicted after police tracked his movements using a GPS device attached to his Jeep.

The man took the case to the Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction because it found that much of the evidence was inadmissible. The reason: police did not have a warrant.

The verdict merely confirmed that in the eyes of the law, using a tracking device does count as carrying out a search, something that is heavily restricted by the Fourth Amendment.

However, it didn't clearly establish that, in the future, police must acquire a warrant before using a GPS tracking device.

Ruling Clarifies Fourth Amendment

Now, a new case has led to a ruling on that issue.

It involves three brothers suspected of a series of store thefts. Police put a GPS tracker on their car and then stopped and searched it shortly after a local theft. Although police say they found stolen items, a series of appeals has led to that evidence being ruled inadmissible and the brothers' convictions being overturned.

This week a federal appeals court confirmed that decision. It said that, as a legal principle and a general rule, police must get a warrant before using GPS trackers. (Source:

Court Rejects 'Same As Search' Argument

The court explicitly rejected the argument that using GPS trackers should be covered by the same rules that apply to physically searching a vehicle. Police do have the right to search vehicles without a warrant if they have probable cause to do so.

The thinking behind that rule is that there's too great a danger of a car being long gone by the time the paperwork is done.

According to the court, that's not relevant to the issue of using GPS trackers. It said that using a tracker gives police far more information over a much longer time than they would get from a physical search. (Source:

This week's ruling only affects the use of physical devices, such as GPS trackers. It doesn't affect the ongoing legal debate about law enforcement officials' use of phone company records to track people's movements through their smartphones.

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