LAW -- January 23, 2012 at 4:18 PM EDT
Marcia Coyle: Court Moves 'Carefully' to Balance Rights in GPS Ruling
The Supreme Court's decision Monday -- saying police must have a warrant before attaching a GPS tracker to vehicles -- shows the court "wants to move carefully" in weighing the privacy rights of individuals against law enforcement's need for information in criminal investigations, according to legal analyst and NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle.
The case revolves around Antoine Jones, who was a suspected cocaine dealer in Washington, D.C. Police initially obtained a warrant for a GPS tracing device for his car, but it had expired before they actually attached the device to the underbelly of his Jeep.
Police monitored the device for 24 hours a day for 28 days. Jones was convicted of conspiracy, but it was overturned on appeal. The lower court found the warrantless use of the GPS device for 24 hours for nearly a month violated the Fourth Amendment.
Although the court unanimously ruled that this action was a search, the justices were divided 5-4 on the reasoning.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, explained that for most of history the Fourth Amendment was understood to have a special concern for government trespass upon the areas that the amendment itself names -- persons, houses, papers and effects.
A vehicle is an "effect" as that term is used in the Fourth Amendment, according to Scalia, and here, the government got information by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area, so a search has occurred, Coyle explained.
This was a narrow but very significant decision, she continued, and it also seemed to make clear to law enforcement that where there is any legal uncertainty about what they want to do, they can resolve it by getting a warrant.
The ruling also was a significant defeat for the government in general, and law enforcement in particular, said Coyle. "These justices are very leery of the power of new technology. They're leery of it and they're respectful of it, and that came across in the oral arguments, too."
We'll have more from Marcia Coyle about the effects of the ruling on Monday's NewsHour.