The Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement authorities must obtain a warrant before applying a GPS tracker to a suspect’s car for the purposes of surveillance. The law of the land may now be at odds with public safety.
Unanimously, the court decided that the Constitution’s bar against unreasonable searches and seizures applies because the installation of the device infringes on the car owner’s property rights as set out by the Founding Fathers centuries before the digital era.
The decision was clear, certain and all-encompassing at a time when technology is reshaping society, along with the information available about all of us via smartphones and other devices. Amid this radical upheaval, the court was unwise to sweep so broadly.
Every constitutional right involves a balancing act. The First Amendment is not absolute. The guarantee of freedom of speech allows for libel suits. The Fourth Amendment’s protection against searches bends to let police frisk an individual when there are reasonable grounds to believe the person may be carrying a concealed, illegal weapon.
In taking up the issue of GPS surveillance for the first time, the court should have shown similar judicious care.
The case involved a drug suspect kept under police surveillance by virtue of a GPS device attached surreptitiously to a car. The tracking produced incriminating evidence and a conviction, which will now be tossed.
In 2009, New York’s highest court considered a similar set of facts and reached the same conclusion, although on different grounds: No warrant, no GPS. This page criticized the Court of Appeals then for producing a blanket ban that could obstruct NYPD intelligence-gathering surveillance of potential terrorists.
At the time, as a federal agency answerable to federal courts, the FBI was permitted to continue such tracking. No more.
One can only hope that cops and agents will blow right by the Supreme Court’s absolutism should they discover a need for immediate, warrantless tracking to save lives.
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