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Warrantless GPS Tracking of Vehicles

A recent opinion by the D.C. Circuit has highlighted the issue of whether a warrant is required to attach a GPS monitoring device to a suspect’s vehicle. In United States v. Maynard, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 16417 (D.C. Cir. August 6, 2010), the Court held that extended tracking of a vehicle does constitute a search and does require a warrant. The Court distinguished a prior U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276 (1983), finding that it reserved the issue of whether prolonged monitoring constitutes an impermissible warrantless search.

 

This holding is in stark contrast to a Ninth Circuit case earlier this year. In United States v. Pineda-Moreno, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS (9th Cir. January 11, 2010), the agents attached the device while the vehicle was parked in the driveway of the Defendant’s home. The Court held that the Defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a vehicle parked in his driveway – which the Court characterized as a “semi-private” area. In addition, the Court held that no search had occurred by tracking the vehicle’s movements on public streets, because this was “information the agents could have obtained by following the car.” Although citing Knotts, the Court never addressed the distinction between limited and prolonged monitoring of the vehicle’s movements.

The split between the circuits on this issue, coupled with a possible misinterpretation of prior precedent, makes this issue ripe for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.