In a unanimous decision, The Supreme Court Jan. 23, 2012, ruled that law enforcement officials must obtain a warrant before attaching a GPS (global positioning system) to a suspect’s vehicle to track his movements.
In its ruling the Court stated, “The Government’s attachment of the GPS device to the vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.”
In making its decision the court restated the Fourth Amendment rights given to U.S. citizens, which “protects the rights of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
As part of the ruling the Supreme Court adopted the view that the word "effects" used in the Fourth Amendment is equivalent to a person's vehicle and that if the original writers of the Fourth Amendment had not intended to go beyond protecting "houses" and "papers" they would not have included "effects" in the Amendment.
By protecting the public against the indiscriminate use of GPS devices, the Court also reaffirmed the flexibility of the U.S. Constitution to deal with modern-day issues. Its ruling said in essence that the Fourth Amendment created in the 18th century could be applied to technology created in the 20th century and ubiquitous in the 21st century.
In writing the majority of the opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said, “What we apply is an 18th century guarantee against unreasonable searches, which we believe must provide at a minimum the degree of protection it afforded when it was adopted.”
The American Civil Liberties Union hailed the decision as a victory for privacy and said the implications went beyond disallowing the placement of a GPS device on a suspect’s car. According to the ACLU, the ruling acknowledged that modern technology in the hands of the government has an “unprecedented” capability to collect, store and analyze information about our private lives.
“Today’s decision suggest that the court is prepared to address that problem,” noted the ACLU in its response, adding Congress also needs to address the issue of privacy.
The ruling was a setback for the Obama Administration, which claimed that attaching a GPS device was not an unwarranted search. In fact, the government lawyers argued the government had the right to attach GPS devices to the Supreme Court Justices' vehicles without a warrant if it saw fit, according to a report in Wired Magazine.
This bit of hubris on the part of the government legal’s team may have been its undoing. It reminds me of that old warning, “Don’t mess with mother nature.” In this case, the Supreme Court is just about as close as we can come to an untouchable force that also should not be messed with.
Although the ruling most likely would have gone against the Administration anyway, the unusual nature of a unanimous Supreme Court decision and the vehemence with which the opinion was written may have something to do with the government’s inappropriate bravado.