It is clear that going onto or into someone’s property to search for evidence is a search under the Constitution, and as a result, police typically need a search warrant or consent for such a search to be valid. However, is it also a search if the police place a GPS device on a vehicle and monitor the vehicle’s movements? The police are not technically searching anything but are able to track where a person goes in the vehicle with the GPS device.
The United States Supreme Court recently addressed this issue in the context of a cocaine trafficking case. The police placed a GPS device on the defendant’s vehicle and monitored his movements for 28 days. The police did get a warrant to place the GPS device, but they did not comply with the terms of the warrant. Over the 28 days, the police were able to track the vehicle’s movements to within 50-100 feet. The GPS tracking device relayed more than 4,000 messages to the police about the vehicle’s location.
The criminal defense lawyer moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the GPS tracking device as a violation of the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. The government argued that a valid warrant was not necessary as a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to his/her movements on public roads.
The Court agreed with the criminal defense lawyer and held that the government’s placement of a GPS device on a vehicle and subsequent monitoring of the GPS device constitutes a “search” as contemplated by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. As a result, in order for the police to place a GPS tracking device on a person’s vehicle, they will need a valid search warrant.