(RNN) - In what has been hailed as a victory for privacy rights, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that police violated a suspect's Fourth Amendment rights when they placed a Global Positioning System (GPS) device on his car without his consent or a proper search warrant.
While the unanimous ruling is no doubt a step toward preserving privacy and civil rights, some people - including some Supreme Court justices - have said the ruling may not have gone far enough.
In the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that since government officials violated the defendant's property rights, they had violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Scalia declined to examine the technology used to violate these rights and the implications the technology will have on law enforcement tactics in the future.
He maintained that since the defendant was in public space while he was being monitored, the GPS monitoring itself was not illegal.
The issue touches on changes in public opinion as to what "public space" actually is.
"If everything we reveal to others is without constitutional protection, then the Fourth Amendment will be largely irrelevant to modern life," said Catherine Crump, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. "The Court demonstrated that it is well aware of the ways in which new technologies threaten to erode the privacy rights Americans have long enjoyed, and that the Fourth Amendment must keep pace."
Priscilla Smith, a senior fellow at Yale Law School's Information Society Project, believes Scalia "completely dropped the ball."
"The most important thing [from the ruling] is the regulation of the incredibly broad position of the government that anytime you're outside in public space, you can be tracked, you can be monitored," Smith said. "Just get a warrant."
Smith helped write a letter in support of the defendant on behalf of the Information Society Project, which urged the Court to take the case as an opportunity to address how technology should be lawfully used by police and government officials.
Although laws are interpreted differently in different jurisdictions, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 requires the government to show only that the information being gathered is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation if they want to get cell phone records, including GPS data.
According to CTIA, the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry, more than 322 million cell phones were in use in America as of June 2011. Digital trends analysis group comScore found that 87.4 million Americans had a smartphone near the end of 2011.
"Going on all around us are cell phone location issues," Smith said. "These are the cases that are percolating the most in the lower courts, followed by online data."
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act applies to internet information in the same way it applies to cell phone records. In the first half of 2011, Google received nearly 6,000 requests for user data from the government.
"People reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks," Sotomayor wrote. "People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers; the URLs that they visit and the email addresses with which they correspond to their internet service providers; and the books, groceries and medications they purchase to online retailers."
The evolution of technology meant that the Court could no longer hold "secrecy as a prerequisite for privacy," according to Sotomayor.
"I would ask whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated in a manner that enables the government to ascertain, more or less at will, their political and religious beliefs, sexual habits and so on," Sotomayor wrote.
The case taken up by the Supreme Court involved the 2005 placement of a GPS monitoring device on a car driven primarily by Antoine Jones, a nightclub owner in Washington, who was suspected of trafficking narcotics.
Government officials from the FBI and the Metropolitan Police Department worked together to crack the case. They obtained a search warrant, but they didn't comply with the stipulations given that the device was to be put on the car within 10 days, and only in Washington.
However, the GPS was put on Jones' car on the 11th day, and in Maryland.
Jones was sentenced to life in prison after information from the device was used to connect him to a stash house containing $850,000 in cash, 97 kilograms of cocaine and a kilogram of cocaine base.
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