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Justices to decide police use of GPS devices on suspects' cars

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
  • A GPS device planted on a car led to a man's conviction on a drug-dealing charge
  • The conviction was overturned; a federal appeals court said a warrant was needed
  • The Supreme Court will hold arguments on the case, perhaps by year's end

Washington (CNN) -- Antoine Jones was being watched. Police used a global positioning system to track his movements around the nation's capital. After a monthlong clandestine operation, Jones was arrested and charged with drug trafficking.

Now the Supreme Court will decide whether law enforcement should have obtained a warrant before placing the device on the drug suspect's car so they could covertly trail him.

The justices Monday accepted an appeal from the Obama administration, and will hold arguments perhaps by year's end.

A federal appeals court had overturned Jones' criminal conviction, saying it was a "search" that deserved some Fourth Amendment protection.

At issue is whether movement in a vehicle on city streets is "public" in nature.

Growing sophistication of electronic devices to monitor the movements of suspects makes this issue ripe for review, since lower court have disagreed on when such surveillance is permissible without a warrant.

The devices send an electronic signal to a satellite, allowing real-time plotting of someone's whereabouts.

Jones was a co-owner of Levels, a Washington nightclub. He was suspected of trafficking cocaine on the side, and FBI agents covertly attached a GPS device to his Jeep without first obtaining a search warrant. He was eventually tracked to suburban Maryland, where law enforcement discovered nearly 100 kilograms of the illegal narcotic, along with about $850,000 in cash. He was later sentenced to life in prison.

The government has urged the high court to resolve the issue.

"GPS tracking is an important law enforcement tool, and the issue will therefore continue to arise," the Justice Department said in its appeal. "This court should intervene to clarify the governing legal principles that apply to an array of investigative techniques, and to establish when GPS tracking may lawfully be undertaken."

The justices were also considering whether to accept a separate appeal from an Oregon inmate who faced similar circumstances. Police there had attached a GPS device to Juan Pineda-Moreno's car while it was parked on his property. Officers then tracked him to a remote marijuana field he was cultivating. He was convicted and sentenced to more than four years behind bars.

Unlike Jones, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled this was not a "search" so no warrant was required to place the device on Pineda-Moreno's Jeep Cherokee. His conviction was upheld.

The justices did not take any action on the Oregon appeal, perhaps waiting to resolve the issue with Jones' appeal from Washington.

That case is U.S. v. Jones (10-1259).