When Machines are Watching: How Warrantless Use of GPS Surveillance Technology Violates the Fourth Amendment Right Against Unreasonable Searches

Thaw, David; Smith, Priscilla; Syed, Nabiha; Wong, Albert
Yale Law Journal Online

Federal and state law enforcement officials throughout the nation are currently using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology for automated, prolonged surveillance without obtaining warrants. As a result, cases are proliferating in which criminal defendants are challenging law enforcement’s warrantless uses of GPS surveillance technology, and courts are looking for direction from the Supreme Court. Most recently, a split has emerged between the Ninth and D.C. Circuit Courts of Appeal on the issue. In United States v. Pineda-Moreno, the Ninth Circuit relied on United States v. Knotts — which approved the limited use of beeper technology without a warrant — to uphold warrantless use of GPS surveillance technology. However, in United States v. Maynard, the D.C. Circuit held that warrants are required for law enforcement use of GPS tracking devices. In distinguishing Knotts, the D.C. Circuit pointed to the vast differences between the relatively primitive beeper technology used almost thirty years ago and the unprecedented power of GPS surveillance technology used today. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and various state courts are similarly divided. In light of this confusion, the Supreme Court has recently agreed to review the issue, granting certiorari from the decision of the D.C. Circuit in Maynard and leaving the Pineda-Moreno petition in a holding pattern. On November 8, the Supreme Court will hold oral arguments in the case, which was docketed under the new name United States v. Jones.