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Court: Police must get warrant before using GPS to track suspects

In the years since the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., government and police agencies in California and across the country have come to expect that they will be given full leeway in criminal investigations, even if their tactics may infringe on the constitutional rights of the suspect. However, that tide may be changing after a recent Supreme Court decision that orders police investigators to get a search warrant before using GPS devices to track suspects.

The lawsuit was filed by a man who had been arrested on multiple drug charges after police installed a GPS device on his vehicle and tracked him for four weeks. As a result, they were able to connect him to a home that had allegedly been used to stash drugs and money. The man was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He filed an appeal, and his case eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States.

In a surprising move, the court ruled that the police investigators' use of the GPS device had violated the suspect's constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The justices unanimously agreed that police officers and government agencies must first get the approval of a judge (via a search warrant) before installing GPS devices on suspects' vehicles.

In effect, this ruling may not affect the day-to-day operations of police investigations. In general, judge's grant most warrant requests, so it may just create an additional step for police officers. However, it is encouraging that the court is showing increased concern for individual rights.

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "Warrant needed for GPS tracking, high court says," Jan. 23, 2012

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