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Ruling on GPS Tracking by Police Leaves a Big Question

The satellite-based Global Positioning System is a great way to locate places -- or people. But in January the United States Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officials must get approval from a judge before placing a GPS tracking device on a vehicle. The case involved a suspected drug dealer in Washington. Police put a GPS device on his car and tracked his movements for almost a month. That led them to a house with nearly one hundred kilograms of cocaine and eight hundred fifty thousand dollars in cash. Antoine Jones was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. He appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Law professor Christopher Slobogin at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, says: "Mr. Jones' argued that that evidence was obtained illegally because the police did not have a warrant. And his argument was in essence that use of the tracking device was an unconstitutional search under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides that the government may not engage in unreasonable searches and seizures.

Mr. Jones claimed that the absence of a warrant made this search unreasonable." And, says Professor Slobogin, the high court agreed. "All nine members of the court, conservative members as well as liberal members, decided that the Fourth Amendment was violated in this case." But the ruling only dealt with the physical act of placing the GPS device on the vehicle and tracking Mr. Jones. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion. Justice Scalia said the case did not require the court to decide if electronic monitoring without trespassing onto someone's property is also a violation of privacy.

Law professor Renee Hutchins at the University of Maryland says that is a big question that remains to be answered. "Most people have smartphones. A lot of people have cars that have GPS pre-installed. So the government doesn't have to do the installation. The installation, which was the hook for Justice Scalia, is already accomplished. We do it voluntarily." Justice Sonya Sotomayor suggested that the court may have to rethink what privacy means in modern society where people voluntarily give up a lot of personal information. As Professor Hutchins put in, "In a world where there's Facebook and GPS on your cell phone and GPS in your car, how should the court be thinking about constitutional protections?"

For VOA Special English, I'm Carolyn Presutti. (Adapted from a radio program broadcast 30Jan2012)