WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Supreme Court justices on Tuesday expressed concerns about the police secretly putting GPS devices on vehicles to track suspects’ movements, comparing it to the Big Brother police state of the novel “1984.”
If the Obama administration wins its case to allow vehicles to be tracked by global position system, Justice Stephen Breyer said, “Then there is nothing to prevent the police or the government from monitoring 24 hours a day the public movement of every citizen.”
A government win would “suddenly produce what sounds like 1984,” Breyer said in a reference to the famous George Orwell novel of 1949 that depicted pervasive government surveillance.
In the high court’s first consideration of the issue in fighting crime, the justices questioned whether police tracking with GPS devices would invade citizens’ basic constitutional privacy rights.
Police use of cell phones, surveillance cameras and even satellites could be affected by the case before the court.
It began in 2005 when police went to a public parking lot in Maryland and secretly installed a GPS device on a Jeep Grand Cherokee used by a Washington, D.C., nightclub owner, Antoine Jones. He was suspected of drug trafficking. Police tracked his movements for a month.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said he had “serious reservations” about the way the device had been installed.
Justice Antonin Scalia also expressed concern, calling it “unquestionably a trespass” by the police and saying the device was attached without Jones’ knowledge or approval.
Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben of the U.S. Justice Department defended the use of the GPS device as legal, arguing it simply tracked movement on public streets and was no more intrusive than visual police surveillance.
He acknowledged that a GPS device perhaps can be viewed as a “1984” type invasion of privacy, but said it had not become a “massive universal use of an investigative technique” by the federal government.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that under the government’s position anyone could be monitored after leaving their home and entering a vehicle. Only a person’s home would be secure from intrusion, she said.
Justice Elena Kagan said a GPS device can track someone’s movements 24 hours a day, wherever they go, and the data reported to the police. “That seems too much to me,” she said.
Chief Justice John Roberts said to Dreeben that the normal way to handle questions such as the length of monitoring would be to get a judge’s advance approval in a warrant.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked how far the government could go, questioning whether the police could put a computer chip in a person’s overcoat or could monitor and track everyone through their cell phones. “That’s really the bottom line,” she said.
Attorney Stephen Leckar, arguing for Jones, said use of the GPS device was a grave threat and an abuse of privacy rights.
Justice Samuel Alito pressed him on where to draw the line and whether the police could use a GPS device to monitor a suspect just for several hours or for only one day.
Sotomayor asked whether the police can access satellite cameras that show a neighborhood and use that to monitor a person’s movement from place to place. Leckar said the police would have to get a warrant.
A ruling is expected before June.
The Supreme Court case is United States v. Antoine Jones, No. 10-1259.
Reporting by James Vicini; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Cynthia Osterman