GPS Tracking Devices and the Right to be Free From Unreasonable Searches

Author: Christopher A. MeyerMechanicsville Personal Injury Attorney

The 4th Amendment to the Constitution of The United States reads as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Although there are exceptions, the general rule is that a person – as well as his house, papers and effects – cannot be searched by law enforcement unless a warrant has been obtained. To obtain a warrant, the law enforcement officer must go to a judicial officer and show that he has probable cause to believe that the person has been involved in a crime, what that crime is, and the scope of the search (including a description of what is to be searched).  No warrant will issue without this information and no search, with limited exceptions, will be authorized. The penalty for law enforcement performing an unlawful search is that any evidence seized during the search cannot be used in court against the defendant.[1] When an unauthorized search has taken place, the defendant often goes free. At the time that the 4th Amendment was adopted, a “search” usually meant an officer barging down the door and forcefully searching the premises. However, modern technology has made it possible for law enforcement to “search” without actually entering premises.

A recent case illustrates the problem of the application of the 4th Amendment in modern life. The Washington D.C. police suspected a man of being involved in a cocaine-selling ring. They had enough information to ask a judicial officer for a warrant, that is, probable cause to believe that he was guilty of violating laws involving cocaine trafficking. They obtained a warrant which allowed them to place a GPS tracking device on the suspect’s car. With this device, they could follow him electronically anywhere in the United States. The judicial officer who issued the warrant limited it, stating that the GPS device had to be installed within 10 days from the issuance of the warrant and that it had to be installed in the District of Columbia. Unfortunately the police installed the GPS tracking device on the suspect’s car on the 11th day and did so in Maryland, thus violating the terms of the warrant and this resulted in it not being valid.

The suspect was convicted, with the aid of significant information obtained from the GPS tracking device. He was sentenced to life in prison. He appealed on the grounds that the evidence from the GPS tracking device should never have been admitted against him because it was obtained by an unlawful search. Law enforcement, realizing that the terms of the warrant had been violated, argued that they didn’t need a warrant at all to plant a GPS tracking device on the suspect’s car since this didn’t violate the prohibition on searches and seizures.  Their reasoning was that they could have followed him anyway, and all that the GPS device did was give them information about the suspect’s whereabouts that could have been lawfully obtained by simple observation.

The United States Supreme Court, in the case of United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. , 2012 U.S. Lexis 1063 (2012), reversed the conviction.  The nine Justices on the court did not agree as to the reasons for the reversal.  There were two basic views from the Justices. One view was that placing the GPS device on the suspect’s car amounted to a trespass and this clearly violated the 4th Amendment without a valid warrant. The other Justices held the view that the suspect had a reasonable expectation of privacy that was protected by the 4th Amendment that was violated.

In sum, all nine justices believed that the 4th Amendment rights of the suspect had been violated.[2]

This case interpreted the U.S. Constitution to mean that law enforcement does not have the right to place a GPS tracking device on a person’s car without getting a judicial officer to approve it, and that must be based on probable cause to believe that the suspect has or is committing crimes. Even then, the terms of the warrant must be followed. Without such judicial action, placing GPS device on a person’s car violates the 4th amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches.  If that occurs, then any evidence obtained by such a search will not be admissible in a court of law.[3]

About the Author: Chris Meyer is a car accident lawyer in Mechanicsville Virginia with personal injury law firm of Allen & Allen. He has developed a reputation on the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct and annually lectures on Virginia Legal Ethics. He also lectures regularly on recent decisions of the Virginia Supreme court.


[1] Even evidence found later as a result of the illegal search is usually not admissible in court.  This principle is known as “the fruit of the poisonous tree.”  If the original search was illegal, then any evidence found as a result of that search is also tainted and therefore, not admissible in court.  For a case that describes this principle as applied recently, see United States v. Patane, 542 U.S. 630 (2004), at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/02-1183.
[2] For the full text of the opinion, see www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-1259.pdf.
[3] For more information about how the constitutional right against unlawful search and seizure has been applied in other contexts, see.  For articles about issues arising from this constitutional right in the United States and in other countries that have a similar principle of law, see articles in the New York Times newspaper at http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/subjects/s/search_and_seizure/index.html.