WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group that includes former leaders of the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration on Wednesday called for limits on law enforcement’s use of GPS and other powerful technologies to track the movements of suspects.
Police should be required to obtain a search warrant for any GPS surveillance that lasts more than 24 hours, said a new report from the Constitution Project, a Washington think tank. And the group says a warrant always should be needed when authorities have to install a tracking device on a vehicle.
A member of the group, Patricia Wald, the former chief judge on the federal appeals court in Washington, said the debate over GPS tracking is “one instance of the much broader problem of regulating new technology.”
The report is being issued by the group’s liberty and security committee in advance of the Supreme Court’s consideration of the issue in November. It says it recognizes the usefulness of tracking technologies, “but the government should not have unchecked discretion to electronically track anyone, anywhere, at any time without cause.”
The Obama administration says warrants would hamper law enforcement investigations and aren’t needed because the surveillance monitors movements on public streets.
The administration is asking the court to reinstate the conviction of Washington nightclub owner Antoine Jones for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. The government’s case against him relied in part on GPS tracking, conducted without a warrant over four weeks in 2005, that helped establish Jones’ presence at a suspected stash house in a Maryland suburb of Washington.
The Constitution Project report said such prolonged surveillance should be carried out only with a judge’s approval and with a warrant. GPS and cell phone technologies that provide information about a user’s location “are now far more sophisticated and precise, and more significantly, they are capable of providing continuous monitoring and the compilation of vast databases of information about individuals’ daily movements.”
David Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union and co-chairman of the panel that produced the report, said, “It’s one thing to track somebody for a day, another thing to track every place he went for a month. That’s different qualitatively, not just quantitatively.”
By contrast, the group said that surveillance of up to 24 hours should not require a warrant.
The committee that produced the report includes several prominent Republicans and conservatives. Among its members are William Sessions, tapped by President Ronald Reagan to lead the FBI, Asa Hutchinson, who ran the DEA under President George W. Bush, and former Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia.
“As the former head of the DEA, I understand the need for tracking bad guys, being able to secretly monitor a suspect’s movements. But this is a good balance between the needs of law enforcement and privacy issues,” Hutchinson said.
Wald and another retired federal judge, James Robertson, both Democratic appointees, signed onto the report.
A Supreme Court ruling for Jones would not deprive authorities of the ability to use sophisticated surveillance technology; they just would have to get a warrant for it.
In this very case, FBI agents and Washington police obtained a warrant to install the GPS device on a Jeep Grand Cherokee that was registered to Jones’ wife. But they let the warrant expire before they installed the device.
If the court sides with the government, the committee said Congress should pass legislation to require warrants. The report also said Congress should require the government to produce a warrant before asking cell phone providers for location information.