The police did, in fact, nail DC nightclub owner Antoine Jones. But the Supreme Court this week sided with the Appeals court that over-turned Jones's conviction on the grounds that police need to first obtain a search warrant before attaching such a device.
The decision by the high court was unanimous, a relative rarity for this court that is usually politically divided. But the decision also opens up questions, legal scholars and some of the justices believe, about whether law enforcement will be allowed to track suspects by homing in on their cellphone with or without a warrant.
View Gallery: GPS Tracking Devices
Judge Samuel Alito addressed the cell-phone issue in his opinion asserting that the most basic cellphone can be located by coordinating signals received by different towers. That would cover more than 322 million cellphones, he noted. Advanced smart-phones often contain GPS devices that can be more accurately tapped for a user's location – Apple, for example, allows a user of its new iCloud system to precisely locate a phone that might have been lost or stolen.
"It may be necessary to reconsider" whether simply carrying a cellphone means a citizen "has no reasonable expectation of privacy," at least when it comes to disclosing one's location, added the court's newest member, Sonia Sotomayor.
The decision should also open new questions about whether police can tap into GPS systems installed on cars, such as General Motors' OnStar system. In an episode of Hawaii Five-O on CBS, a show in which GM has had a vehicle integration deal, the Hawaii police literally caught a criminal by honing in on his OnStar. Before that, character Tony Soprano in HBOs The Sopranos, ordered that all the GPS stuff be ripped out of a new GM SUV to avoid having the FBI use it to track his movements. The idea is already very much in the pop culture.