Saturday, November 12, 2011
The proliferation of high-tech gadgets such as GPS devices has changed the way law enforcement tracks suspects. A device can be planted on a car and police will know exactly where the suspect is going.
While this high-tech tailing might be efficient and effective, is it an infringement on the Fourth Amendment right to privacy?
And what about our cellphones? Is the information stored in our phones - from text messages to pictures - fair game for a police search when someone is pulled over for a traffic violation?
Ultimately it will be up to the U.S. Supreme Court to draw a clear line between the use of these high-tech devices and our privacy rights. That could be happening very soon as the high court heard arguments Tuesday in a case involving GPS tracking of a suspect.
The Supreme Court justices' questioning seemed to show they have reservations about police using GPS technology to track criminal suspects without a warrant.
The court heard arguments in the Obama administration's appeal of a lower court ruling that tossed out a drug conspiracy conviction against a Washington, D.C., nightclub owner. FBI agents and local police did not have a valid search warrant when they installed a GPS device on the man's car and collected travel information.
We would hope that justices would uphold the need for police to obtain a warrant.
Some in law enforcement see no reason to ask judges for an OK before attaching GPS devices to cars because they contend police are already free to conduct surveillance by simply following people around. There is, at least in their minds, no difference between trailing someone by car or on foot and using technology.
We see a huge difference. Attaching a GPS device to a vehicle is an invasive act that most of us would not expect to occur. And unlike following someone, which can be easily detectable with a simple glance, the suspects do not know they are being tracked.
Planting a GPS device is an invasion of privacy on par with searching a house and should require a warrant. Having a law enforcement officer scroll the information in a cellphone also seems like an invasion of privacy.
But last month California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill passed by the Legislature with a unanimous bipartisan vote prohibiting police from searching a suspect's cellphone without a warrant.
Expediency should not crush individual rights. California lawmakers got it right.
We believe a warrant should be obtained for cellphone searches, GPS planting and other high-tech ways to gather information.
This simple step provides an important balance to the process. It ensures judicial oversight to protect citizens from the policy misusing their authority.
Fighting crime is important, but so is preserving our right to privacy.