The United States Supreme Court In United States v Jones, __ US __ (2012) ruled unanimously on Monday that law enforcement agents must obtain a search warrant before attaching a GPS device to a vehicle to track a drug dealer suspect.
In this country the collection of digital evidence in criminal cases is governed at the Federal and State levels by numerous constitutional and statutory provisions, including statutes that regulate the communications and computer industries and that directly govern the gathering and use of digital evidence. At the forefront is the specific language of the United States Constitution that: “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. US Const, Am IV.
In Jones, supra the Justice Department argued that it didn't need to obtain permission to attach a global positioning system to a Jeep Grand Cherokee owned by the wife of a Washington, D.C., nightclub owner and suspected drug dealer, Antoine Jones, who had been sentenced to life in prison. The government had obtained a search warrant but failed to install the device in the 10 days it was allowed to do so. The government conceded it didn't have a proper warrant when it attached the device, but argued to the Supreme Court that it wasn't necessary because defendant Jones had no expectation of privacy in that the tracking of the vehicle could have been permissibly done by the use of government agents following the vehicle. In Jones, supra, the FBI captured 2,000 pages of data over a four-week period as it tracked the vehicle - and even had to replace the battery when it was sitting in a public parking lot in Maryland.
Initially, a federal district judge agreed with the Government position and upheld most of the GPS search, saying that "a person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another." On further appeal this determination was reversed and the matter ended up before the Supreme Court.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a unanimous court, said installing the GPS device constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment. "The government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information," Scalia wrote. Scalia's opinion was joined by all eight members as to the judgment - but five other justices joined separate opinions explaining their reasons.
Although its implications remain undecided the Opinion is recognition of one’s existing rights under the Fourth Amendment notwithstanding the ever-changing circumstances in today’s technology and computer age.