Supreme Court will decide when feds can follow you with GPS

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case involving a man tracked by the FBI without a warrant for a month with a GPS unit mounted on his car. Lower courts ruled against the feds, but there's one round left.

The case involves Antoine Jones, a Washington, D.C., nightclub owner suspected of running a cocaine ring. The FBI mounted a GPS tracker to his Jeep Cherokee for four weeks before arresting him, but didn't seek a warrant for the device. In court, the government argued that the heavy-duty GPS device — similar to the one shown here disassembled by iFixit.com — was just a modern version of agents shadowing suspects on public streets, and didn't require legal permission.

But the D.C. federal court of appeals disagreed, ruling last year that while watching someone on public streets was far different than attaching a GPS to their vehicle and reporting every inch they traveled for a month. Because people would not expect all their travels to be recorded, the judges' ruled the GPS tracker violated the Fourth Amendment if not obtained with a warrant. The ruling threw out Jones' conviction on drug charges.

Two other appeals court have said they have no problem with the police using GPS systems to track people, and with confusion in the land the Obama administration urged the Supreme Court to settle the question, contending GPS tracking is already legal and saves time in nascent investigations versus old-fashioned stakeouts. Expect the court to argue it out this fall.

Photo: Andrew Bookholt, iFixit.com