Imagine a society in which cops have the power to place GPS tracking devices on thousands of vehicles, arbitrarily, without need for a single warrant.
We're already there, says the Eighth Circuit Court.
In upholding the conviction of Josue Acosta Marquez, (a.k.a. Martin Contreras-Pulido) in an interstate marijuana-smuggling case, the Circuit Court judges wrote that federal agents and Iowa cops did nothing wrong when they planted the electronic-monitoring device on a pickup truck used by Marquez while it was parked at a Wal-Mart. Police accessed the unit seven times to change the batteries -- always in a public place -- and tracked the pickup as it drove between Des Moines and Denver.
Since anyone can see a vehicle parked or driving in public places, the use of electronics to enhance surveillance doesn't violate Fourth Amendment rights regarding unreasonable search and seizure, wrote Justices Roger Wollman, James Loken and John Gibson.
No warrant neeeded. And there's nothing stopping cops from planting those suckers as often and wherever they like, says the Eighth Court judges, (adding that they're "mindful of the concerns" about the May 21 ruling. In a chilling aside, the justices write:
It is imaginable that a police unit could undertake "wholesale surveillance" by attaching such devices to thousands of random cars and then analyzing the volumes of data produced for suspicious patterns of activity. Id. Such an effort, if it ever occurred, would raise different concerns than the ones present here.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
n other words, they're passing the buck on the really hard questions.
And their scenario isn't fully fleshed-out. Rulings such as theirs may encourage some cops not just to try "wholesale surveillance" on potential or active criminals, but targeted surveillance for political reasons. Such hypothetical spying might not result in an arrest or charges, nor be discovered by the public until well after the operation is in place.
Without sounding too much like the conspiracy-theory nuts we like to pick on, we can't help but wonder where all of this leading.
One last thing: If law officers can hide GPS trackers on our vehicles without warrants, the public ought to be able to place trackers on cop cars. After all, cops should have no expectation of privacy when they're driving around in public places, right?