The Obama administration on Friday asked [cert. petition, PDF] the US Supreme Court [official website] to determine whether police need warrants to track a suspect's movement using global position systems (GPS) technology. The government is appealing last year's lower court decision that prohibits the use of warrantless GPS technology [JURIST report]. In that decision, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] ruled that prolonged use of GPS to monitor suspects' vehicles violates the Fourth Amendment [text] protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The government rejects the argument that using a GPS tracking system violates a suspect's reasonable expectation of privacy. This view hinges on the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Knotts [opinion, PDF], which allowed for electronic surveillance in public based on a lower expectation of privacy on public roads. The Supreme Court's resolution on the issue, the Justice Department believes, is critical for future law enforcement decisions.
The use of GPS technology and other surveillance devices by law enforcement agents continue to be a controversial issue in the US, with courts across the country coming to divergent conclusions. Last week, the Court of Appeals of Virginia [official website] ruled that using a GPS device to track the movement of a suspect in a string of sexual assaults without obtaining a warrant did not violate the Fourth Amendment [JURIST report]. A Pennsylvania appeals court allowed use of evidence obtained with GPS technology [JURIST report] in December. In September, a three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] that, at times, the government might need a warrant to obtain cell phone data [JURIST report] to track a person's location. Last year, the US Supreme Court unanimously held that, even if there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in work-issued electronic devices, that an employer's search of private text messages does not violate [JURIST report] the Fourth Amendment so long as the search is not excessive and is pursuant to a legitimate work-related purpose.