WASHINGTON -- In a rare defeat for law enforcement, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed on Monday to bar police from installing GPS technology to track suspects without first getting a judge's approval. The justices made clear it wouldn't be their final word on increasingly advanced high-tech surveillance of Americans.
Indicating they will be monitoring the growing use of such technology, five justices said they could see constitutional and privacy problems with police using many kinds of electronic surveillance for long-term tracking of citizens' movements without warrants.
While the justices differed on legal rationales, their unanimous outcome was an unusual setback for government and police agencies grown accustomed to being given leeway in investigations in post-Sept. 11 America, including by the Supreme Court. The views of at least the five justices raised the possibility of new hurdles down the road for police who want to use high-tech surveillance of suspects, including various types of GPS technology.
"It's a win for private citizens, not just defense attorneys," veteran Ogden defense attorney Rich Gallegos said of Monday's GPS ruling. "It's a win for us all."
The unanimous decision by the conservative-leaning court under Chief Justice John Roberts was a surprise, Gallegos said. "I don't think any of us expected it."
If the government wants to track its citizens, he said, oversight should be required.
"The law is always trying to catch up with technology, and this is a big step." Gallegos said he believed the high court's ruling was its first regarding GPS tracking, making it a landmark decision.
"You don't want government, and read into that law enforcement, to have too much power. It's the whole Big Brother thing."
GPS tracking issues were aired in a local case in 2010 when a North Ogden man, Jared Beal, was charged with poaching bobcats. A GPS unit was attached to his truck and traced his travel for 10 weeks as he tended his traps set in three counties.
Under Utah law, officers only needed an authorization from a judge, not a warrant, to attach the GPS gear when the truck was in a public place. But to attach the tracker on private property, state law required a warrant, which officers obtained.
Beal's defense attorney challenged the authorization as unconstitutional
The Weber County Attorney's Office successfully argued in 2nd District Court that the GPS unit was not invasive enough to require a warrant for authorization. The judge only needed to know the GPS was being used pursuant to a police investigation.
Defense attorney Brenda Beaton argued the use of thermal-imaging equipment to measure heat levels from grow lamps at suspected indoor marijuana crops requires a search warrant. Other states have higher standards for GPS authorizations, such as search warrants, she said at the time, some have a lower standard and some don't mandate police even seek authorization from a judge before attaching GPS units to citizens' cars.
"The Supreme Court's decision is an important one because it sends a message that technological advances cannot outpace the American Constitution," said Donald Tibbs, a professor at the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University. "The people will retain certain rights even when technology changes how the police are able to conduct their investigations."
A GPS device installed by police on Washington, D.C., nightclub owner Antoine Jones' Jeep and tracked for four weeks helped link him to a suburban house used to stash money and drugs. He was sentenced to life in prison before an appeals court overturned his conviction.
It's not clear how much difficulty police agencies would have with warrant requirements in this area; historically they are rarely denied warrants they request. But the Obama administration argued that getting one could be cumbersome. In the Jones case, police got a warrant but did not install the GPS device until after the warrant had expired and then in a jurisdiction that wasn't covered by the document.