Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Geolocation Bill Seeks to Unify Fourth Amendment Protections

The following guest post is provided by Sonya Ziaja, J.D. Sonya is the co-owner of Ziaja Consulting LLC, a California based consulting group. She writes regularly for LegalMatch's Law Blog and Ziaja Consulting's blog, Shark. Laser. Blawg.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) is in the process of crafting a bill to place legal limitations on the use of geolocation technologies.

Geolocation is commonplace nowadays. People play geolocation games (Foursquare, etc.). And geolocation technologies are encouraged to protect public safety (FCC’s Enhanced 911 rule). To some extent we are comfortable with broadcasting our location, which is well and good so long as doing so is harmless. There is, however, a less carefree side to geolocation--especially where it comes into conflict with the protections of the fourth amendment against unreasonable searches.

Over the past few years, law enforcement has increasing relied on geolocation techniques to track citizens without first obtaining a warrant. Doing so is at least questionably constitutional, if not outright illegal. Law enforcement makes use of both cell phone tracking and secretly tagging vehicles with GPS devices, all without court authorization.

The courts are split on the fourth amendment issues this issue raises. The Ninth Circuit in US v. Pineda-Moreno, for example, held that surreptitiously tagging a vehicle with a GPS device does not require a warrant because it is a substitute for “following a car on a public street, that is unequivocally not a search within the meaning of the [fourth] amendment.” The D.C. Circuit, however, takes the opposite view. In US v. Maynard, the D.C. Circuit held that a warrant is constitutionally necessary before police attach a GPS device to a suspect’s car. The court also specifically rejected the automobile exception argument, stating that

the automobile exception permits the police to search a car without a warrant if they have reason to believe it contains contraband; the exception does not authorize them to install a tracking device on a car without the approval of a neutral magistrate.

A recent case highlights the split. Earlier this March, a twenty-year old college student from San Jose, California brought suit against the FBI for secretly tagging his car without a warrant. Not surprisingly, he has decided to file in Washington D.C., rather than in California.

This circuit split is part of the impetus behind Senator Wyden’s bill--the Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act, or GPS Act. The bill aims to clarify the law, addressing multiple forms of geolocation, covering both information gained through cell phone use and covertly tagging vehicles. The hope is that the bill will create a uniform policy that protects both privacy and public safety.

To balance privacy and safety, the bill provides exemptions for emergency cases--for example in cases of national security of when the user’s life is at risk--when police would not need to obtain a warrant. These exemptions have been the most contentious aspect of the bill. Paul Wormelli, executive of the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute, has been particularly vocal about his concerns that the bill’s exceptions are too vague and would have a chilling effect on officers.

The bill is still in the early stages, however, and has not been formally introduced in the Senate. The language may need clarifying, but at the moment, the GPS bill looks to be our best bet to address the constitutional issues raised by widespread use of geolocation technologies.

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