A recent Law.com article tackles the thought-provoking question of whether or not police use of GPS tracking devices violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures."
The article highlights a 2010 case in Ohio where sheriff’s deputies placed a GPS tracking device on a car registered to a man who, along with an accomplice, was suspected of committing a string of armed burglaries. The article reports that “on the ninth day of monitoring, a home owner reported that two armed men had just broken into his home and shot his dog. The deputies checked the GPS tracking and observed that the suspect’s car was in the vicinity of this home invasion, and were able to track the movements of the car back to one of the suspects’ homes. The men were arrested and later convicted of the armed burglary. An appeal, alleging that the use of the GPS device violated the Fourth Amendment, is pending."
GPS devices are small, easy to attach to vehicles, have a long battery life, and can cheaply and efficiently track locations in real time. However, the constitutionality of their use is among the most hotly debated issues facing law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. Since the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches without a search warrant, the issue with GPS tracking devices is whether their use by police constitutes a “search." The distinction isn’t always very clear.
State and federal courts have differed in their interpretations. Most federal courts rely on a 1983 case ( United States v. Knotts) to hold that the use of GPS devices without a warrant on vehicles in public places is permissible since there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for voluntarily traveling on public roads. However state courts, such as the Washington Supreme Court and New York Court of Appeals, have held that GPS devices violate their respective constitutions’ provisions upholding privacy and protecting against government intrusion.
In 2010 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in United States v. Maynard, became the first federal court to hold that the use of a GPS tracking device without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment. In that case “the defendant was under investigation for suspected drug offenses. As part of the investigation, officers installed a GPS device on his vehicle and tracked his movements for four weeks. The court held that this tracking violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights."