US Supreme Court finds GPS ankle trackers on criminals to be a ‘search’ by police

1 Apr 2015

A potentially groundbreaking case in front of the US Supreme Court has called into question the rules behind GPS ankle bracelets on criminals, and whether they should be permitted.

Grady v North Carolina saw a sex offender argue that having to plug his bracelet into a wall for several hours a day to charge it, thus tying him to one spot, isn’t right. It seems that, to a degree, the Supreme Court agrees.

The justices said: “[t]he State’s program is plainly designed to obtain information. And since it does so by physically intruding on a subject’s body, it effects a Fourth Amendment search.

“That conclusion, however, does not decide the ultimate question of the program’s constitutionality. The Fourth Amendment prohibits only unreasonable searches … the North Carolina courts did not examine whether the state’s monitoring program is reasonable ­– when properly viewed as a search – and we will not do so in the first instance.”

Precendent is there

In the past, cases relating to this topic found the placing of a GPS tracker on someone’s car – without a warrant – to monitor their whereabouts was also a search, with this an extension of that, essentially. To add to the discussion, there’s also the fact that the person arrested in this instance, Torrey Dale Grady, gave no pemission to attach the device.

It’s a bit of a confusing situation, in truth. This case deals solely with the device attached to the subject by law enforcement. However geolocational devices are everywhere now, with smartphones following you wherever you go.

Then there’s the countless things like public transport cards and bank cards that can add to the suite of ways to track a person. As an aspect of law, both in the US and elsewhere in the world, discussions on the tracking of people will have to be had.

Also, this hinges on the need to charge up the ankle bracelet every day for four to six hours, but advancements in battery lifespans are consistently ongoing, with Atmel previewing a microcontroller just this week that could drastically improve things such as trackers.

What’s interesting is the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is actually trying to develop a whole new type of location-tracking tech because it feels GPS is unreliable.

US Constitution image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic