Last week the United States Supreme Court ruled on a case that we have been following closely. The case involves Antoine Jones, a Washington, D.C. nightclub owner. Washington police placed a GPS tracking device on his vehicle, without a warrant. They followed him around for about a month and linked him to a known drug stash house. He was eventually arrested and charged with numerous drug offenses. He was eventually convicted of distributing cocaine and was sentenced to life in prison. The question in this case became whether police need to obtain a warrant before placing a GPS device on someone's vehicle? On August 27, 2010, we reported about a decision out of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled that law enforcement authorities can place a GPS tracking device on a suspect's vehicle without the need to obtain a warrant. On August 6, 2010, we reported that the Washington, D.C. Court of appeals had ruled in Jones's case that the police were required to obtain a warrant before placing a GPS device on a suspect's vehicle. This split of authority set up a confrontation that was ripe for resolution by the United States Supreme Court. On November 11, 2011 we reported that the United States Supreme Court had heard oral arguments on the Jones case. We reported that several of the justices indicated that they were skeptical of the government's position that a warrant was not needed. The majority of the court agreed that in this specific case, which involves the placing of a GPS device on a suspects vehicle, a warrant was needed. The majority reasoned that when the police placed the GPS device on Antoine Jones' vehicle, they had committed an illegal trespass and that the evidence obtained could not be used because the government had violated the law in order to obtain the information. But what the Supreme Court did not answer was whether the public had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" when it comes to electronic surveillance. Nor did they discuss what the limits of that expectation of privacy are. Justice Alito criticized the majority for "kicking the can down the road" by not discussing what the public's reasonable expectation of privacy was in their electronics. At this point, it looks like the decision is limited to the placing of GPS devices on suspect's vehicles but still leaves open the question of whether our cell phones can be tracked, internet usage or even video surveillance of our movements in public can be monitored by the government without the need to obtain a warrant. What can we do in private and how far can the government go in following us around and looking into what we do, who we talk to and where we go?
There is currently a case in the Federal District Court of Arizona that is being watched closely that could eventually make its way up to the United States Supreme Court. This case involves the use of a cell phone tracking device called "stingray" to track suspects without their knowledge. This device is used by the Defense Department. A cell phone tower is set up to mimic an actual cell phone tower. When a suspect's cell phone is turned on, the cell phone tower connects to the cell phone and it monitors the movements of the suspect. The attorney for the suspect in the Arizona case asked for discovery to determine how this "stingray" system works and the FBI is refusing to disclose this information. The FBI considers this device to be so critical and so important, that they fear that disclosing details about it would be dangerous to the public. This issue is being litigated in the Arizona case and it could very well make its way all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.
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