ACLU-DE filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Delaware Supreme Court last week urging the justices to uphold a decision that requires police to have a warrant when they place a global positioning system (GPS) tracking device on a car to obtain information on its location and movements.

“I think most people would be shocked to learn that the police want the power to attach a GPS unit to any car or truck out of curiosity about the movements of a person driving that vehicle,” said Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the ACLU of Delaware. “The constitutional requirement that police have probable cause to believe a person is violating the law before doing a search is designed to prevent just such fishing expeditions.”

The case, State of Delaware V. Michael D. Holden, arises out of an investigation by a Drug Enforcement Administration task force of Holden, identified by two informants as a possible drug distributor. Without demonstrating probable cause or obtaining a court order, the police attached a GPS device to a car that was said to be used by Holden. They then monitored the movements of the car for almost three weeks without discovering any facts to corroborate the information supplied by the informants.

On February 24, 2010, the informants told police that Holden would be picking up a shipment of marijuana. Officers used GPS to track the car and then went to observe activity outside a home in New Jersey where the GPS indicated the car was parked. The officers saw a duffle bag placed in the vehicle. They then tracked the car, again using GPS technology, and eventually asked Delaware River and Bay Authority police to stop and search the vehicle after it crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The duffle bag contained marijuana.

Holden was charged and brought to trial on drug offenses, during which his lawyers asked that the evidence found in the vehicle be suppressed because it was obtained illegally by the police in what amounted to a warrantless search. Superior Court of Delaware granted the motion to suppress. The case has now been appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court.

The ACLU of Delaware submitted a friend-of-the-court brief because the prospect of remote GPS tracking without traditional judicial supervision raises profound questions about the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, and generally to the right to privacy in an increasingly technologically sophisticated world.

“Where someone travels can reveal a great deal of information about them, including everything from where they worship to who their friends are to what political meetings they attend,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.  “GPS tracking is very revealing, and the police should not be able to do it without involving a judge and establishing probable cause.”

Read the Superior Court of Delaware ruling

View the ACLU-DE friend-of-the-court brief

Read The News Journal article about the case