Yesterday was the first day of the Supreme Court 2011-2012 term, and one of the most hotly contested cases it will take up asks if the police and FBI can secretly attach a GPS tracking device to anyone’s car for any one reason, without a warrant.
The case, United States v. Jones, is that of Antoine Jones, the owner of a Washington nightclub, who was sentenced to life in prison for selling cocaine. The sentencing was based on evidence gathered from a GPS device that was placed on his car unbeknownst to him.
Also waiting the Supreme Court’s decision here is one of the biggest murder cases in the Bay Area in a decade: that of Yusuf Bey IV. Bey IV, the former leader of Oakland’s Youth Black Muslim Bakery, was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Oakland Post’s editor-in-chief Chauncey Bailey, who was covering the Bakery’s corruption and pending bankruptcy at the time. Bev IV’s lawyer hopes the Supreme Court will throw out the ruling because evidence was collected from a GPS device placed on Bev IV’s car without a warrant.
Yet another case involves Yasif Afifi, a 20-year-old student in San Jose, who, with the Council on American Islamic Relations, sued the government after he found a GPS device on his car after taking it in for an oil change. Afifi, an Egyptian-American, says he has never committed a crime.
Opponents of the police and FBI using tracking devices argue that the 18th-century prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures” needs to be updated to include modern technology so that police need a warrant before tracking an individual. Opponents like the ACLU argue that, without a warrant mandated and with GPS as cheap as it is now, the government could technically put a device on everyone’s car — or track individuals through their phones. Proponents of government-use of the devices point out that police surveillance and car tailing is already allowed and say GPS just brings it into the digital age. In the Jones case, the government argued in a brief that losing the warrantless right would “seriously impede the government’s ability to investigate leads on drug trafficking, terrorism and other crimes.” Former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton, leader of predictive policing and gathering of information to prevent crime, thinks GPS tracking is essential.
In the age of technology like GPS, OnStar and Facebook, is privacy a thing of the past for those wanting to stay plugged in; are privacy concerns a generational issue? Is warrantless GPS tracking a dangerous civil rights precedent to set? Or is greater national safety worth the loss of privacy?
Bill Bratton, former LAPD Chief; chairman of Kroll, a risk consulting company of Altegrity, Inc.; leader of predictive policing (gathering of information to prevent crime)
Frederick Lane, author of "American Privacy: The 400-Year History of Our Most Contested Right"