A drug distribution case recently took center stage in a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court.
At issue was whether the police needed a warrant to gather evidence of cocaine trafficking via GPS surveillance (the police put a tracker on the defendant’s vehicle).
Legal commentators are saying that it’s a landmark Fourth Amendment case concerning privacy in light of technological advances, which all started when a joint local and federal law enforcement task force began investigating the defendant, a club owner, in 2004.
The police suspected that he was engaged in trafficking cocaine.
Apparently a search warrant was issued to install a GPS device on the defendant’s vehicle, but the task force did not actually install it until the day after the warrant expired. The tracking device provided 24-hour surveillance – the defendant’s comings and goings, exactly where and when, without the police having to be bothered to actually get into a squad car.
Based on information obtained from the tracking device, the defendant was linked to a drug house and later convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
He was given a life sentence.
But last year an appeals court overturned the conviction, ruling on grounds that GPS surveillance was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, which sent the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2012.
The Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, a victory for the defendant, unanimously stating that in this case the defendant’s vehicle was constitutionally protected from the warrantless search, while a concurring opinion recognized GPS tracking as having the potential to seriously invade citizens’ privacy.
The case is back in the lower courts, where prosecutors are attempting to get cell phone tower data introduced as evidence.