A Missouri federal judge ruled the FBI did not need a warrant to secretly attach a GPS monitoring device to a suspect’s car to track his public movements for two months.
The ruling, upholding federal theft and other charges, is one in a string of decisions nationwide supporting warrantless GPS surveillance. Last week’s decision comes as the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue within months in an unrelated case.
The ruling from Magistrate David Noce mirrored the Obama administration position before the Supreme Court during oral arguments on the topic in November. In short, defendant Fred Robinson, who was suspected of fudging his time sheets for his treasurer’s office job for the city of St. Louis, had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his public movements, Magistrate Noce said.
Noce ruled: (.pdf)
Here, installation of the GPS tracker device onto defendant Robinson’s Cavalier was not a ’search’ because defendant Robinson did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the exterior of his Cavalier. Agents installed the GPS tracker device onto defendant’s Cavalier based on a reasonable suspicion that he was being illegally paid as a ‘ghost’ employee on the payroll of the St. Louis City Treasurer’s Office.
Installation of the GPS tracker device was non-invasive; a magnetic component of the GPS tracker device allowed it to be affixed to the exterior of the Cavalier without the use of screws and without causing any damage to the exterior of the Cavalier. The GPS tracker device was installed when the Cavalier was on a public street near defendant’s residence. Installation of the GPS tracker device revealed no information to the agents other than the public location of the vehicle. Under these circumstances, installation of the GPS tracker device was not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.
The GPS tracking in 2010, Noce continued, “corroborated that Robinson’s employment time sheets were false.”
Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben told the Supreme Court in November oral arguments that federal authorities employ warrantless GPS monitoring “in the low thousands annually.” Dreeben also said the government could affix GPS devices, without warrants, to the vehicles of the nine members of the Supreme Court.
Many of the justices were skeptical of the government’s position, saying the United States could evolve into a surveillance state if the Supreme Court sides with the government.
Justice Stephen Breyer told Dreeben, “If you win this case, there is nothing to prevent the police or government from monitoring 24 hours a day every citizen of the United States.”