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Supreme Court asked to take GPS surveillance case

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By The Washington Post
Monday, April 25, 2011

WASHINGTON -- It's a wide, wired world out there, and the Obama administration is asking the Supreme Court to let law enforcement take advantage of it to build cases against the bad guys.

The administration wants the justices to overturn a decision last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that said police must get a warrant before beginning a long-term surveillance of a suspect using a global positioning device attached to the man's car.

In overturning the conviction of a Washington nightclub owner accused of being a prominent cocaine kingpin, Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal said the appeals court decision was not faithful to a Supreme Court ruling that people have no expectation of privacy when traveling along public streets.

"Prompt resolution of this conflict is critically important to law enforcement efforts throughout the United States," Katyal told the court in a petition asking them to take the case of United States v. Antoine Jones.

Jones had been sentenced to life in prison and ordered to surrender $1 million in drug profits before the appeals court overturned his conviction last year. For a month, police had recorded his trips around the Washington area and repeated trips to a stash house in Prince George's County, Md., where police eventually found mounds of cocaine and $850,000 in cash.

Appeals courts in two other parts of the country have sided with law enforcement on the issue, saying police do not need a warrant for the kind of prolonged surveillance the GPS devices can provide.

The decisions come as judges increasingly are asked to unravel the connection between modern technology and constitutional protections of privacy and against unreasonable searches. GPS devices in cell phones and cars contain a wealth of information about a person's movements, and a smartphone can provide law enforcement with vast amounts of information.

"This case is really going to confront the court with the problem of adopting the Fourth Amendment to a new information age," said Daniel Prywes, a Washington lawyer who wrote a brief in the Jones case for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"I think it's the seminal privacy case of the 21st century."

It could be months before the Supreme Court decides whether to take the case.

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