Should Police be Forced to Obtain Warrants Before Tracking Suspects?

As more police adopt GPS tracking for investigation and information gathering purposes, there is a debate brewing over the legality of  tracking and whether police should be forced to get a warrant before tracking suspects. In many states, police have full reign to track suspect’s at will, and people are starting to question whether this is a violation of privacy and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

GPS tracking has been an effective tool for police that has revolutionized the way law enforcement track and monitor suspects. But can the police just track whomever they want, whenever they want? The laws vary by state but many people argue that perhaps the police are given too much power when it comes to tracking and monitoring a person’s every move.  Do the police have a valid reason for tracking a suspect? Or is it just a hunch? The United States is a country based on the idea of freedom of movement and innocence until proven guilty, which makes many people question whether police should be allowed to track suspects, or former criminals, without truly valid reasons. With technology making it easy for us to see into each others lives, the issue of how to apply the Fourth Amendment privacy rights to match the technology of the 21st century is a recurring theme.
The Fourth Amendment “cannot sensibly be read to mean that police shall be no more efficient in the 21st century than they were in the 18th… There is a tradeoff between security and privacy, and often it favors security,” wrote Judge Richard Posner.
Typically the courts have agreed that the Fourth Amendment does not prevent police from trailing a suspect, mostly because there is no expectation of privacy for actions in the public view. This same point of view is what should make warrant-less tracking legal, as it results in the same type of tracking, but at a fraction of tax payer’s money.

However, the appeals court is arguing that although a person’s movements may be public, an onlooker would only be able to see isolated movements rather than seeing a person’s every move.  With GPS technology, all of a person’s movements become public — whether they’re on private property, or traveling without anyone in sight. The appeals court is arguing that both stakeout surveillance and GPS tracking violates a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

“Prolonged surveillance reveals types of information not revealed by short-term surveillance, such as what a person does repeatedly, what he does not do, and what he does ensemble… A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individual or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts,” wrote Judge Douglas Ginsburg.
The few Fourth Amendment cases involving modern technology to reach the Supreme Court have generally upheld the idea that as long as someone is being monitored in a public place where anyone could possibly see them, their actions are considered public and there is not a reasonable expectation of privacy. If that ruling is upheld in the current case against GPS tracking, then it will be completely legal for police to track suspects without a warrant. However, with new technology making sharing information that much easier, this issue could be reappearing again in court.

Either way, a conclusion must be reached so that both civilians and police officers can know just how much power the Fourth Amendment really holds. Should police be forced to get a warrant before they use GPS to track a suspect?  Some argue that this may waste valuable time that could catch criminals. Or should it be perfectly legal since all the recorded travels are in the public view anyway? Either way, this won’t be the first or last time that GPS tracking is in the hot seat for the privacy issue.

(Via NY Times)

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