No Warrant Required: How Technology is Changing the Fourth Amendment

Technology’s impact upon our lives is present in nearly anything we do. Smartphones have applications that can tell us whatever we need to know. If we are lost, we can use the phone’s Global Positioning System (GPS) to find directions to our destination. We can use it to go online and find nearby places to eat or shop. We can even use our phones to buy movie tickets or pay bills while away from home.

The conveniences that smartphones provide us on a daily basis also have created some concerning gray areas that law enforcement is using to its advantage. The law has simply not kept up with the changes in technology, and there are questions about what police must do to comply with Fourth Amendment requirements that safeguard us from illegal searches and seizures. One current case will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this term, and it involves the warrantless use of a GPS device on a suspect’s vehicle.

Is Installing a GPS Tracking Device a Search?

Antoine Jones was one of the targets of an investigation concerning several alleged drug crimes. Law enforcement officers from the F.B.I. and Washington, D.C. police department were trying to build a case against Jones, whom they suspected of being involved in a cocaine distribution ring. Jones had been under visual surveillance, and investigators had also been allowed to monitor any phone calls that Jones made or received on his cellphone.

In addition, police had received a warrant to install a GPS device on a vehicle that belonged to Jones’ wife. The warrant had very specific requirements: police had 10 days to place it on the vehicle, and could only install the device while the vehicle was located someplace within Washington, D.C. Police did not comply with these requirements, as they installed the GPS 11 days after receiving the warrant, and the vehicle was parked in Maryland when installation was complete.

Investigators used the information that the GPS provided to link Jones to a stash house in the area. This information, connected with the phone calls that Jones received, led officers to believe that a major drug shipment was forthcoming. Search warrants were executed, and officers recovered $70,000 from the Jeep that Jones had been using. At the stash house, they found large quantities of cocaine and crack cocaine, as well as $850,000. Jones was subsequently convicted based on the evidence gathered using the GPS device.

Jones appealed his conviction, alleging that the government had invaded his privacy by placing a GPS device upon the vehicle without a warrant. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned Jones’ conviction, stating that Jones had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the movements of his vehicle over a one month period of time.

The court felt that there was no member of the public who could have observed all of Jones’ movements over that time period. The GPS was deemed to be a search, and this search required a warrant. The court cited to statutes in several jurisdictions in which warrants were necessary before a GPS could be attached, and if the police had no such warrant, all evidence obtained by using the device would be excluded. Since this ruling has created an apparent split among the circuits, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear this case.

Cellphones and GPS Data: Can Police Access Information?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is keeping a close eye on this case, because it has some very far-reaching implications. It was recently determined that popular smartphones being used today would store information about where a phone was at any particular time. If law enforcement suspected someone of a crime, they could check that person’s phone to learn if that person was in the area at the time a crime was committed, possibly without even needing a warrant. The organization is currently asking police departments in 31 states across the country for the policies and procedures being used to access smartphone data.

If police can access this information without having to obtain a warrant, it makes their job that much easier. If you are arrested, and are carrying a smartphone, police can quickly examine this information and decide whether or not you are a serious suspect. They can use any of the evidence they extract from the phone against you – without needing the court’s permission.

If you learn that you are the target of a police investigation or if you have been arrested, take the matter seriously. Do not think that you can talk your way out of trouble. Police are looking for you to help them prove their case, and anything you say can be used against you if the matter ends up going to trial. Speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area to help you protect your rights.