Last month, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of United States v. Jones. In Jones, the police, without a valid warrant, placed a global positioning satellite (GPS) technology device on the car of a suspected drug dealer in Washington, D.C. The police then tracked the movements of Antoine Jones for several weeks with this device, and they used the data collected to convict him of conspiracy to sell cocaine. The Supreme Court was set to decide whether the warrantless surveillance and tracking was a search under the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. In a unanimous decision (Supreme Court pdf; archive pdf), the court held that police do need a valid warrant to place a GPS device on a vehicle.
There were numerous stories and analyses of the case. See CNN, the New York Times, Politico, the Washington Post and Wired. There also was criticism of the decision. The majority opinion by Justice Scalia was premised on the fact that there was a physical trespass, or intrusion, by putting the device on the vehicle. It did not decide an issue of privacy, and a New York Times editorial criticized the Supreme Court ruling for being too narrow.
Now, USA Today reports that, in response to the Jones ruling, “the FBI has begun cutting back GPS surveillance in an array of criminal and intelligence investigations.”
The bureau began implementing the change the day after the Jan. 23 ruling in which the court found that attaching such a device to a car amounted to a search covered by the Fourth Amendment, requiring police to seek warrants in many cases.
The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly on the matter, said the Global Positioning System directive was issued until further legal guidance is provided on the use of the technology.
Meanwhile, the official said, additional FBI agents have been dispatched to cover costly, labor-intensive surveillance operations that had previously relied on GPS technology.
It is unclear to me why, if the FBI deems these surveillance operations important, the FBI would not apply for warrants to allow GPS tracking, which would obviate the need to dispatch FBI agents “to cover costly, labor-intensive surveillance operations.” USA Today continues:
The Justice Department is in the midst of evaluating the ruling’s implications, Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said.
It was unclear whether the court decision will force a change in the department’s manual guiding federal law enforcement operations.
In that document, known as “The Attorney General’s Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations,” a list of approved investigative methods includes the use of GPS-type “direction finders and other monitoring devices,” which “usually do not require court orders or warrants.”