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DOJ Asks Supreme Court to Rule Cops Can Track Suspect by GPS Without a Warrant

Posted Apr 25, 2011 10:55 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Justice Department is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a federal appeals court decision requiring police to get a warrant before attaching a global positioning device to a suspect’s car.

Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal urged the Supreme Court to grant cert to resolve a circuit split, according to stories by the Washington Post, Wired’s Threat Level blog and The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times. At issue is whether use of the device is a “search” under the Fourth Amendment and whether a person has an expectation of privacy for his travel in public, The BLT says.

The police used a GPS device to record the movements of accused cocaine dealer Antoine Jones, including his trips to a stash house where police found cocaine and $850,000 in cash. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned Jones’ conviction because police did not get a warrant.

The government contends the GPS device can be installed under a 1983 Supreme Court case, United States v. Knotts, which allowed police to install a beeper device in a can of chemical used to make drugs. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a person’s movements from one place to another, the government argues in its brief (PDF posted by Threat Level). The D.C. Circuit said the case did not apply because it involved tracking from one place to another, while the GPS was used to track a person’s movements “24 hours a day for 28 days.”

Washington, D.C., lawyer Daniel Prywes calls United States v. Jones “the seminal privacy case of the 21st Century,” the Post says. He wrote a brief in the case for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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