The FBI did not need to obtain a warrant before secretly planting a GPS tracking device underneath the car of a St. Louis City Treasurer’s Office employee accused of stealing public money, a federal judge has ruled.
Fred Robinson was indicated in September on one count of wire fraud and seven counts of federal program theft, according to the Courthouse News Service. While he was under federal investigation, without first obtaining a court order agents planted the tracking device on his car to observe and record his movements and locations. The device was later secretly removed.
The FBI claimed the tracking device proved that Robinson’s employment time sheets were false, but his lawyer argued that the evidence should be thrown out because it violated his constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendments.
But U.S. Magistrate Judge David Noce held that the warrantless installation and use of a GPS tracker device had already been ruled legal by appellate courts.
“The 8th Circuit held that the agents did not need a warrant prior to installing and using the GPS tracker device,” Noce wrote. “The court explained, ‘when police have reasonable suspicion that a particular vehicle is transporting drugs, a warrant is not required when, while the vehicle is parked in a public place, they install a non-invasive GPS tracking device on it for a reasonable period of time.’ Because installation of the GPS tracker device was non-invasive and because the agents installed the device when the truck was parked in public, installation of the GPS tracker device was not a search.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has recently taken up the issue. The U.S. government has asked the justices to reinstate the conviction of Washington nightclub owner Antoine Jones for drug dealing which had been overturned by an appeals court which found the warrantless tracking “creepy” and “un-American.”
But comments from the justices in November were skeptical.
“If you win this case, there is nothing preventing you from monitoring the movements of every citizen of the United States 24 hours a day,” said Justice Stephen Breyer.
“If you win, you produce something that sounds like ’1984,’” he said, making a reference to the George Orwell novel.
The top court is expected to rule on the case before its term ends next June.
Among those following the case, some say it is a preview of what is expected to be more critical cases of whether police can use GPS-enabled smartphones to track individuals, also without a warrant.
The decision may shed light “on whether government agents are required to get a warrant before accessing location information generated by use of a cellular telephone, laptop computer, tablet computer, or other mobile computing device,” according to the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group.