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Court rejects warrantless GPS tracking

Extended GPS tracking without warrant found by U.S. Court of Appeals to be a violation of Fourth Amendment rights

August 9, 2010 07:05 PM ET

Computerworld - The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit has rejected claims by the government that federal agents have the right to conduct around-the-clock warrantless GPS tracking of suspects.

In a 41-page ruling last Friday, the appellate court dismissed government arguments about the constitutional validity of such searches and maintained that the evidence gathered from the warrantless GPS tracking in the case was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

"It is one thing for a passerby to observe or even to follow someone during a single journey as he goes to the market or returns home from work," Judge Douglas Ginsburg wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel that reviewed the case.

"It is another thing entirely for that stranger to pick up the scent again the next day and the day after that, week in and week out, dogging his prey until he has identified all the places, people, amusements, and chores that make up that person's hitherto private routine," Judge Ginsburg wrote.

The case involves Antoine Jones and Lawrence Maynard, two individuals who were convicted in a joint trial in 2008 on charges of possessing and conspiring to distribute more than 50 kilograms of cocaine. Jones was arrested in 2004. Maynard was added as a defendant in superseding indictments in March 2006 and pled guilty shortly thereafter.

In a trial in 2006, Jones was acquitted of all charges against him, but the jury deadlocked on the conspiracy charge and a mistrial was declared. Maynard was allowed to withdraw his plea shortly after that.

However, in 2007, prosecutors filed another superseding indictment charging both Jones and Maynard with conspiring to possess cocaine with the intent of distributing it. Both were found guilty in the trail that followed.

Jones appealed the verdict claiming that the evidence used against him had been gathered from a GPS device illegally attached to his Jeep that continually tracked his movement, 24-hours a day, for a full month. He argued that the warrantless use of the GPS device violated his rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

Prosecutors argued that federal agents had used the GPS devices in accordance with precedent established by several other courts in cases involving warrantless GPS tracking.

One of the cases the government relied on to make its argument involved the use of a beeper by federal agents to track the movement of a suspect in an illicit drug manufacturing case. In that case, federal agents without obtaining a warrant, had planted a beeper in a drum being transported by the suspect, and then used it to track his movements.



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