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FBI allowed to add GPS device to cars without warrants

Published time: January 04, 2012 19:10
Edited time: January 04, 2012 23:10
Reuters / Stringer

Reuters / Stringer

The Supreme Court will soon weigh in on whether law enforcement agencies can monitor your every move without you knowing — and without a warrant. In Missouri, however, one judge isn’t waiting to find out their word.

US Magistrate Judge David Noce ruled last week in favor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and determined that the FBI did not need a warrant in order to affix a GPS device to the car of a St. Louis man.

Fred Robinson, 69, was accused of collecting $175,000 in compensation while on the payroll of the St. Louis City Treasurer’s Office. Authorities alleged that Robinson held a position in name only and actually avoided going into the office. To prove this, law enforcement agents didn’t just ask around City Hall or dispatch a few officers to go speak with staffers. Instead, the FBI installed a GPS device on Robinson’s car without ever notifying him or asking permission.

The US Supreme Court will decide later this year if such action is allowable without obtaining a warrant. In the interim, Judge Noce says it is just fine.

In his ruling, Judge Noce cited an earlier call from the Eighth Circuit Court that determined, “'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.” In the case of Robinson, that is exactly what agents did.

Or so they claim.

Robinson’s attorneys insisted that their client’s First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated during the sting, but Judge Noce says that the installation of the tracker “was not a search.” Since the GPS device was installed in a way that the officers insist was non-invasive and planted in plain view of public, placing the monitor on Robinson’s Chevy Cavalier was entirely by-the-books.

“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,” rules Judge Noce. Specifically, says Noce, “defendant Robinson did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the exterior of his Cavalier. Agents installed the GPS tracker device onto defendant's Cavalier based on a reasonable suspicion that he was being illegally paid as a 'ghost' employee on the payroll of the St. Louis City Treasurer's Office.”

Even though the device was installed unbeknownst to the subject, the judge says that using magnets to affix the device to the automobile in lieu of screws made it legitimate. The installation and removal of the GPS tracker were both done in public, but during secret operations that Robinson was unaware of. Ergo, until the Supreme Court rules (and perhaps even after then), the FBI is fine to monitor anyone suspected of a crime, says Noce, as long as they don’t dent your Dodge Durgano in the process.

In Washington, the Supreme Court will consider a similar case later this year by discussing the matter of United States v. Antoine Jones. As RT reported earlier, in that ordeal officers had installed a GPS device on Jones’ automobile while it was parked in a public lot outside of Washington DC —without ever obtaining a warrant. Jones was suspected of drug trafficking but cops never obtained permission to install the device. Although the records obtained by monitoring his movement helped lead officers to nearly 100 kilograms of cocaine and eventually a conviction of life in prison, a Washington appeals court reversed the decision in 2010. In response, the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to decide in hopes of once again enforcing a conviction on Jones.


When the Obama administration petitioned for an appeal to that appeal, officials argued that “GPS tracking is an important law enforcement tool,” and if not investigated fully, “the issue will … continue to arise frequently.”

Justice Stephen Breyer previously predicted that should the Supreme Court walk away with okaying the installation of such devices, “there is nothing to prevent the police or government from monitoring 24 hours a day the public movement of every citizen of the United States.”

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