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The Supreme Court fiddles with GPS

September 26, 2011 | 11:17 am

SCOTUS

The Supreme Court term doesn't begin until next Monday but an in-group of lawyers, law students and journalists got a preview over the weekend at the so-called Supreme Court Preview at the William and Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va. Featuring scholars and journalists (and one prominent judge) going through cases the court has accepted for review, the annual event is part markup session, part seminar and part networking.

The highlight of this year's preview was a moot court Friday night at which advocates argued one of the most interesting cases of the term. United States vs. Jones concerns a drug dealer who was monitored for a month by police through a GPS tracker affixed to his car. The questions for the court are two: whether such tracking is a search that should have required a warrant, and whether the affixing of the device to the car was an unconstitutional search or seizure.

A federal appeals court ruled that the tracking was unconstitutional because, even though it's settled law that a warrant isn't necessary to view people traveling on public streets, this sort of nonstop, pervasive tracking took an intrusion on privacy to another level.

The argument ranged widely over real and hypothetical cases. If police can stick a GPS on a car, why not on a piece of clothing -- or everyone's license plate?

Unlike most of the cases the court will consider, the GPS case will resonate with ordinary citizens who may feel their privacy  has been eroded by technological processes. But based on the moot-court arguments, they shouldn't get their hopes up. It will be difficult for the justices to draw the line between reasonable surveillance of public movements and an unreasonable monitoring of the "mosaic" of information produced during a long period of GPS tracking. So it might not even try, leaving the question to Congress and state legislatures.

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--Michael McGough

Photo: Supreme Court building. Credit: Reuters

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