Citizens traveling public highways should have no expectation of privacy just because police are tracking their movements through GPS rather than in person, the U.S. government argued Tuesday in a case before the Supreme Court that pits the interest of law enforcement against individual privacy rights.
The dispute springs from a situation in which police affixed a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s car without a proper warrant. It monitored the suspect’s movements for several weeks, noting where his vehicle went and how long it stayed at each location.
While much of the data was ultimately excluded as inadmissible in court, after a mistrial the suspect was convicted of conspiring to distribute cocaine.
His lawyer subsequently argued that use of the GPS device violated his Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
But critics, including the America Civil Liberties Union, warn that the government’s warrantless surveillance power must be carefully limited.
In its brief filed in the case, the ACLU wrote, “Without judicial oversight, the police could track unlimited numbers of people for days, weeks, or months at a time. Americans could never be confident that they were free from round-the-clock surveillance of their activities.”
During Tuesday’s arguments, most of the justices seemed to have similar concerns.
“If you win this case then there is nothing to prevent the police or the government from monitoring 24 hours a day the public movement of every citizen of the United States,” Justice Stephen Breyer told the government lawyer. “You suddenly produce what sounds like 1984.”