Free Markets, Free People

What part of the 4th Amendment does law enforcement not understand?

I don’t know about you, but this seems such a clear thing to me.  If law enforcement is going to put any sort of a tracking device on a citizen’s vehicle, they need to obtain a warrant first.  See 4th Amendment:

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled unanimously that the police violated the Constitution when they placed a Global Positioning System tracking device on a suspect’s car and monitored its movements for 28 days.


Walter Dellinger, a lawyer for the defendant in the case and a former acting United States solicitor general, said the decision was “a signal event in Fourth Amendment history.”

“Law enforcement is now on notice,” Mr. Dellinger said, “that almost any use of GPS electronic surveillance of a citizen’s movement will be legally questionable unless a warrant is obtained in advance.”


“We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,’ ” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor joined the majority opinion.

“It is important to be clear about what occurred in this case,” Justice Scalia went on. “The government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.”

The government, in this case, had put a GPS device on the target’s vehicle without a warrant, monitored it for 28 days and then used that information at his trial (he was convicted on cocaine trafficking charges and given a life sentence).

The reason I think this should have been a no-brainer for LEOs is the fact that the SCOTUS decision was unanimous. 

When the case was argued in November, a lawyer for the federal government said the number of times the federal authorities used GPS devices to track suspects was “in the low thousands annually.”

Vernon Herron, a former Maryland state trooper now on the staff of the University of Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security, said state and local law enforcement officials used GPS and similar devices “all the time,” adding that “this type of technology is very useful for narcotics and terrorism investigations.”

Monday’s decision thus places a significant burden on widely used law enforcement surveillance techniques, though the authorities remain free to seek warrants from judges authorizing the surveillance.

Ok, get a freaking warrant first. 

What this decision does is uphold a Constitutional right that has been under assault for quite some times.   The “envelope stretching” that is not uncommon as new technology offers new methods of surveillance and monitoring.  The watchword for LEOs should be “when in doubt, get a warrant”.  And live by the document you’ve sworn to uphold and defend.


Twitter: @McQandO

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12 Responses to What part of the 4th Amendment does law enforcement not understand?

  • “And live by the document you’ve sworn to uphold and defend.”

    But that makes it all so haaaaaaaard….

  • Law enforcement prefers to ignore laws where they can nowadays.

    PS- Not to be a punk, but “does Law Enforce doesn’t understand” is kinda awkward (sorry!)

  • Why wouldn’t I think they believe they don’t need warrants, they don’t think you can take pictures of them doing their job in a public place either.

  • I still would love to see test cases of a few scenarios: (1) Can a private citizen attach a GPS tracking device to a police car or the car of a judge or politician? After all, such vehicles are visible on public streets. (After you stop laughing, try to image the criminal charges which would be filed against someone who did something like that. I’m thinking something to do with terrorism would be included in the litany of indictments.)

    (2) Can a person who finds the GPS device on his vehicle (a) destroy it, (b) discard it in the parking lot where he noticed it, (c) attach it to another vehicle, like an 18 wheeler, FedEx truck, police cruiser (see #1), tug boat, or freight train? When someone puts an advertisement under my windshield wiper, I’m under no obligation to see that it is used for their intended purposes, since they relinquished possession by putting it on my property.

    I saw an article a few months back in which a guy put a picture of the device he found on his car on the internet, only to have the LEOs who placed it there demand *their property* back. This reminds me of the Soviets demanding that the family of an executed prisoner pay for the bullet.

    • @myweeklycrime I’d be willing to use a 12lb maul on one found on my vehicle to test it out. Far as I know, I’m not under any legal obligation to preserve items placed on my car by other parties, and certainly not ones HIDDEN on my car by them. As you said, how do I know it’s a law enforcement device? I could be a totally nefarious person doing it, I have no way of knowing, do I.

    • @myweeklycrime On (2)…yes. I especially like (c).

      I strongly advise against (1), though on the same basis I advise against using force to resist an unlawful arrest. You have a perfect right, but it is VERY expensive to vindicate.

  • The SCOTUS didn’t make their judgement cover this in any sweeping way. The still seem open to warrant less placement of GPS devices for a short term per suits, but not “fishing expiditions.”