Applying the Fourth Amendment to Technology Today

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that police must obtain a warrant from a judge before placing a GPS tracking device on a vehicle.

The ruling came in the case of Washington, D.C., nightclub owner Antoine Jones, sentenced to life in prison on drug trafficking charges. While investigating Jones, the FBI placed a GPS tracking device on his car. Every time the Jeep moved it was tracked by satellite, with the information sent to the FBI. The tracking led to the seizure of 97 kilograms of cocaine and $850,000 in cash.

Following the ruling, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction because law enforcement authorities had failed to get a valid warrant before installing the tracking device.

This Supreme Court ruling is an example of how the court system is trying to determine how the fourth amendment is applied in this new digital era in which we live today.  The fourth amendment reads, “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.”  Therefore, the amendment guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, along with requiring any warrant to be judicially sanctioned.

There are other high-tech devices that also need to be addressed by the court regarding privacy and the limits on law enforcement.  For example, Smartphones can disclose an individual’s location unless the internal locator devices are turned off.  Furthermore, email, social networking sites, and other forms of high-tech surveillance is in question regarding whether or not prosecutors can use them in a case without obtaining a warrant first.

A major consideration in determining if a warrant is required to obtain a certain type of technology is a person’s expectation of privacy while engaging in the surveyed actions.  For example, regarding social networking sites such as Facebook, if one chooses to make his account private and only viewable by “friends,” should he expect his account to be kept private?  Or could law enforcement bypass the privacy options and still obtain information from a suspect’s page?  Furthermore, while using a smartphone, should one freely use the phone with an expectation that the conversation and the user’s location are private?

In Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967), the Supreme Court ruled that a party is considered to have been searched, for Fourth Amendment purposes, if that party had a “reasonable expectation of privacy”.  Katz used a public pay phone booth to transmit illegal gambling wagers across state lines, while being recorded by the FBI.  Katz argued that law enforcement violated his Fourth Amendment Rights.  The court ruled in Katz’s favor and stated, “regardless of the location, a conversation is protected from unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment if it is made with a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

In Jones’ case mentioned above, the Supreme Court ruled that a search for Fourth Amendment purposes also occurs when law enforcement trespasses on a person’s property, even if that person had no reasonable expectation of privacy.

If you have been charged with a crime in Louisiana, contact Baton Rouge Criminal Attorney Carl Barkemeyer to discuss your case.

Source: www.npr.org, “High Court: Warrant Needed For GPS Tracking Device,” January 23, 2012.

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