U.S. court rules police must obtain warrant for GPS tracking

A federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled Tuesday that police must obtain a warrant before placing a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle. 

The ACLU argued the case on behalf of three brothers accused of a robbing a series of Philadelphia- area pharmacies.


“What has been clear since soon after police started using these technologies, is how invasive of people’s privacy it really is,” said Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Tracking someone’s location with GPS can reveal a great deal about them, including who their friends are, which doctors they visit, whether they go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or a therapist.”

In 2010, the FBI used a GPS device to track a van belonging to one of the brothers. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that police should first have presented evidence to a judge that they had probable cause for a search in order to obtain a warrant. 

The case addressed a gap left by the Supreme Court when it considered GPS tracking in 2012, said Wessler, who called the ruling “a robust defense of American’s privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment.”

He said the ruling could set a precedent that will affect the use of other newer technologies, including license plate cameras and cell-tower tracking.


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