Joshua Gilliland writes an excellent blog on many legal issues. Today’s posting about a recent court case in California is a disturbing story. Please go read the full version.

The issue at hand is the government’s right to track you as you go about your business. The case involved a suspected drug dealer. The police planted a GPS tracking unit on his car and compiled full records of his movements over several days. They found evidence of illegal activity and convicted him. He appealed, arguing that the way the police collected the evidence violate the 4th Amendment.

At the risk of defending a convicted drug dealer, there are some very disturbing aspects of this case.

First is the Court’s determination that bugging your car with a GPS is fundamentally the same as bugging it with an older “beeper” technology. GPS is far more intrusive and more capable. It is not limited to proximity, it’s always on and it is far more precise in the location reported. And while my location at any one store may be a public action, there is no easily public way to aggregate that information. So even if an individual trip out of the house is public, I still retain an expectation of privacy for the pattern of trips.

Second is this Court’s determination that your driveway is “public” – that you have no expectation of privacy on a car on your own property. From the available reports, the police invaded the suspect’s property to plant the bug. Their argument was that the gas meter reader and postman have rights to come to your front door, therefore the police have a right to come onto your property, too. Their argument for doing so is, in my opinion, weak. The limited right to come onto my property for a defined purpose (and in compliance with an implicit contract for service) does not equate to an unlimited right of access. I do not, for example, sacrifice my rights to allege trespassing by vandals just because the postman delivers mail.

The most worrisome point, though is that both these concerns could have been made moot if the police simply asked for a warrant before attaching the bug. The government’s assertion of a right to do this without a warrant is what makes this such a very concerning precedent. Like Josh, I hope that the Supreme Court accepts the appeal and overturns this standard, preferrably sooner than later.

Leave a Reply