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Law Enforcement Use of Warrantless GPS Tracking in Pennsylvania Drug Cases

Technological innovations like GPS tracking devices can simplify our lives, but they also have a darker side that can threaten our personal liberty and privacy. Law enforcement agencies are increasingly utilizing GPS tracking tools to monitor movements of citizens often without providing probable cause to a judge or obtaining a warrant. The U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. vs. Jones recently reigned in this growing intrusion into Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizures. However, the scope to which law enforcement can still utilize GPS tracking is still undetermined.

Prolonged use of GPS tracking in criminal narcotics cases

In Jones, law enforcement installed a GPS tracking device on the vehicle of a suspected drug dealer Antoine Jones, who was eventually tried and convicted of one count of conspiracy to contribute, and possession with intent to distribute five or more kilos of cocaine, and 50 or more grams of cocaine base. The GPS device was installed without a warrant, and police tracked the suspect’s vehicle continuously for 28 days.

Jones appealed his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the GPS tracking data should be suppressed because the installation and use of the tracking device without a warrant constituted a violation of his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Unanimous rejection of extended warrantless GPS surveillance

All nine justices sided with the defendant but split on the rationale. A majority of five justices focused on the trespass on Jones’ property entailed by installing the GPS device on his vehicle. The Court’s decision ruled that installing the GPS tracking device and monitoring the vehicle did constitute “search” under the Fourth Amendment. The trespass on private property, rather than the extended use of GPS tracking without a warrant, was the reasoning behind the majority opinion.

The other reasoning expressed in a concurring opinion focused on the reasonable expectation of privacy associated with long-term GPS monitoring without a warrant. The concurring opinion pointed out that 24 hour a day monitoring of one’s whereabouts for weeks would previously have been so costly that one would have a reasonable expectation of privacy that this type of surveillance was not being conducted.

Drug enforcement agencies may still attempt to use cellphone GPS tracking

The government is now trying to retry Jones relying on the issue left open by the U.S. Supreme Court. Because the majority in Jones focused on the “trespass on property” involved in installing a tracking device, the issue of tracking with GPS devices installed by a vehicle manufacturer or cellphone was not decided. The government is seeking to have the GPS tracking data from the cellphone of the defendant used at trial.

If the courts rule that the government may use prolonged warrantless monitoring of cellphone GPS data, it will constitute a major intrusion on Fourth Amendment privacy interests. If you are charged with a drug crime, such as bath salt possession, marijuana distribution, methamphetamine manufacturing or heroin trafficking, contact our criminal defense law office right away.

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