Giving privacy-rights advocates and civil libertarians an important victory, a federal appeals court ruled that police conducted an illegal warrant-less search by planting a GPS device in a drug-case suspect's car and tracking him for a month.
In ruling Friday that the police violated the suspect's Fourth Amendment rights, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said that by almost any measure, planting a GPS device, then following a person for several weeks conflicted with an individual's reasonable expectations for privacy.
The court rejected the government's argument that the behavior of police was permissible because the suspect, Antoine Jones, had no reasonable expectation of privacy since his travels over the weeks he was being monitored could've been viewed by any member of the public.
The court also rejected the government's assertion that the use of the GPS device in this case was simply a variation on another practice federal courts have ruled to be constitutional, the use of beepers placed by police on car bumpers to track a suspect.
But the appeals court said the precedents the government pointed to failed to make their case since beepers were used for more limited time periods and to follow a suspect from one place to another. They weren't used for weeks on end to track a suspect going to dozens of locations.
An excerpt from the opinion:
... We hold the whole of a person‘s movements over the course of a month is not actually exposed to the public because the likelihood a stranger would observe all those movements is not just remote, it is essentially nil. 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. 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.
Because the GPS evidence played a significant role in the prosecution's case which resulted in the jury's guilty, the court overturned Jones' conviction. Jones had been a Washington, D.C. nightclub owner.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy and civil-rights organization, congratulated the court on its wisdom:
"The court correctly recognized the important differences between limited surveillance of public activities possible through visual surveillance or traditional 'bumper beepers,' and the sort of extended, invasive, pervasive, always-on tracking that GPS devices allow," said EFF Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick. "This same logic applies in cases of cell phone tracking, and we hope that this decision will be followed by courts that are currently grappling with the question of whether the government must obtain a warrant before using your cell phone as a tracking device."